By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
More than a quarter century ago, Camper Van Beethoven kept '80s college radio stocked with smart stoner songs ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). Singer David Lowery turned up the yee-haw a bit in his next band, Cracker, and dipped a toe into the mainstream ("Teen Angst," "Low"). Between CVB's end in the early '90s and it's 2000s reincarnation, Lowery produced many acts (Counting Crows, Sparklehorse), guitarist-violinist Jonathan Segel (far left above) got around (Heironymous Firebrain, Jack & Jill, great solo albums including the recent "All Attractions") and bassist Victor Krummenacher played with Monks of Doom and made his own solo albums.
But the rebounds always came back to Camper and Cracker. The two bands share enough off-kilter whimsy and personnel that for most of the 21st century they've been touring as a package.
The reunited Camper is as workaday as the original. Are they celebrated with the same froth whipped up around Pavement reunions or the recent quasi-Replacements project? No. (Should they be? Yes.) But that's not exactly what these guys are in it for.
"As David put it, 'There's no benefit to quitting,'" Segel told me in a recent interview. "We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time."
Answering questions online from his current home in Stockholm, Segel talked — and the boy does go on and on — about Camper's legacy, the band's latest California-centric album, "La Costa Perdida," his own solo work and the growing pains of music in a digital world:
Q: David Lowery told me a couple of years ago: "Cracker is so much my personality and Johnny [Hickman]'s, what I write we can do some version of. Camper is a particular beast." Can you describe the particular beast that is Camper? I still struggle myself ...
Jonathan Segel: Well, we have always been some sort of alchemy of the members of the band, regardless of the line-up at the time. A multi-headed hydra! The long-running line up in the 1980s was David, me, Victor Krummenacher, [guitarist] Greg Lisher and [drummer] Chris Pedersen. Then we hit a snag in 1989-90 and I was gone and replaced by David Immergluck and Morgan Fichter for a year (cut off one head and two more shall grow back in its place!). When we started playing as a band again, we went back to the long standing five-piece, but Chris P lives in Australia, so ultimately Frank Funaro has been drumming with us (from Cracker).
So who are we? One of the really interesting things about writing [2004's] "New Roman Times," and even more so with "La Costa Perdida," was bringing everything that we have all individually done in the interim to the table. David obviously has done Cracker but also a bunch of producing; Victor, coming through the Monks of Doom, has become an amazing singer-songwriter in the classic tradition; Greg, after the Monks, has worked on his own pop albums and is continually finishing an instrumental guitar album; and I've done, well, a lot also. So try to bring that all together into a band, where we all have ideas for what to do. We have feelers in all sorts of different types of music, we all are avid book readers, we all have now been playing music all of our adult lives (and longer). It's tough to describe the thread, but there is a definite California personality that comes out, complete with the punk and hippie personae, and a politicization that verges on the tinfoil hat regime. And if we start from there and go with it, the jokes and inside references can become extremely convoluted and bizarre. And that's fun for us — that's one of the big reasons why we continue to do it.
Q: Reunions of rock acts sometimes seem an inevitability. Tell me about how a hydra-headed ensemble like CVB starts communicating again about playing and writing, and eventually creating "New Roman Times." What was the motivation? What sets the CVB glue?
Segel: Are reunions inevitable? I actually never thought during the 1990s that Camper would ever play again. The process was similar to CVB's dissolution, in reverse — that is to say, in fits and starts. Coagulation, I suppose. I think the first indications were either Victor sitting in on bass with Cracker or my flying out to Richmond, Va., to record "White Riot" with Cracker for a Clash tribute record. (CVB had always covered "White Riot" as a country-ish tune ... still do, in fact.) That must have been 1998 or so? At that point I was playing in Sparklehorse for a couple years and David actually joined us onstage to play "All Her Favorite Fruit" in L.A. at the Troubadour, and I think he might have thought that playing some of the old songs would be fun then. By 2000, Greg, Victor and I were joining Cracker during shows for an "Apothecary Show" sort of Camper/Cracker amalgam, with me or Victor (and band) opening the shows. Then we worked on making old material into new material and new material into old material in the studio, making "Camper Van Beethoven is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven" and the entire cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" album. These sort of paved the way for us to record together again.
Camper really "got back together" finally in 2002 in New York for a series of shows at the Knitting Factory. We went to a rehearsal studio and tried to play every song from every album in order. Some worked, some didn't. But we realized that we were still that band that played all those songs, no matter what happened in the time in between, and they were all still in muscle memory to some extent. Plus it was an intense realization on my part, that this band of players was how I learned how to play in a band to begin with, it was very "family." So we continued. And made a new album in 2004 finally, and have been playing shows ever since.
Q: When you returned to CVB and were learning Morgan's violin parts, did you ever think, "Hmm, would've done this differently...," and did you seek to tweak or change any of them? How has the catalog settled/evolved over the years?
Segel: Actually, that's not quite right. I played on demos of about half the tracks on "Key Lime Pie" initially, before leaving the band in 1989, and then in the studio they got Don Lax to play violin. He's sort of a madman gypsy violinist from Santa Cruz. It sounds to me like they recorded him improvising and cut and pasted a bunch (on 2-inch tape!). Morgan played on two tracks on that record, "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Flowers," both of which I would swear were me playing. (We had recorded "Matchstick Men" for [1988's] "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart," but didn't finish it so that our first major-label single wouldn't be a cover.) But apparently, says Victor, Dennis Herring analyzed my effects chain and duplicated it, and she played my parts exactly.
When we play material from "KLP," I simply cannot play like Don Lax. He's a really incredible violinist. I'm sort of a hack, a guitarist who started playing violin. So I do have to tweak it and change it, and for some of the tracks, like "All Her Favorite Fruit," I go back to my demo ideas. But when we were going to put out [the 2008 best-of] "Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty," Virgin wouldn't let us use their recordings, so we had to re-record things to have versions of songs from "OBRS" and "KLP" that we could use for this package. Bruce Kaphan was producing these tracks, and his charter was to make them sound as exact as possible to the originals, which was technically very odd, of course. Imagine trying to track down working studio gear common to the late 1980s. I could easily play things from "OBRS" for the most part but, man, the "KLP" things were incredibly difficult for me, technically and psychologically. I felt like I was being forced to pretend that I was the very guy that stole my own girlfriend. It took me a long and difficult session to record these versions of "All Her Favorite Fruit" and "When I Win the Lottery."
Actually, now that I think about it, I have had to learn one of Morgan's parts, on a song called "L'Aguardiente," which is only on record as a live version from 1990, I think. It's technically tough for me also, as she's a real violinist, and I don't get it right every time in concert. I sort of have to do it any way I can. She came to a show we played in Sebastapol a couple years back, and I offered the violin to her to play it, but she didn't accept.
Q: Tell me about making "La Costa Perdida," and what identity has it carved out in the Camper catalog?(Bonus Q: Hey, no instrumentals?!)
Segel: "La Costa" was quite a while in the making, of course — what, seven years between albums? Eight? After working on "New Roman Times," we toured a lot and planned to make a new record by getting together and writing it together. But when we finally had more time to think about it, we were all at home in our different cities (David in Richmond, Frank in New York, Greg in Santa Cruz, Victor in San Francisco and me in Oakland). Then Cracker cranked up their machine again and made another record, and the rest of us worked at our various jobs and on our own records. Then while Cracker was touring very extensively, they actually wrote another record all together. So Cracker had two releases between the Camper ones. In fact, so did I and so did Victor!
Camper still did the same annual touring, mostly Christmas to Presidents' Day, and then August or September into our Camp-Out Festival near Joshua Tree, but it wasn't until late 2010 that Greg and David got together for a few days and actually began to carve out some ideas for the next CVB album. About six months later, we were scheduled to play at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, Calif., and it got rained out (in June!) and rescheduled for a week later, so we all went to my (now former) house in Oakland every day and sat in the living room and wrote songs together. We must have gotten down ideas for about 20 tracks. The ideas that Greg and David had from the previous winter became mutated, many new musical ideas added during the week, many background and situational ideas for the lyrical content came out of the Big Sur area and its history. We zeroed in on the California theme, taking some inspiration from the Beach Boys "Holland" record, which was all about Northern California and Big Sur. We actually went to the studio to cut some basic tracks later that month, and did the rest in the fall. We decided to hold back some tracks to make the album very NorCal-centric, while the remaining ones were tending to head toward SoCal and L.A. (Just wait for part two!)
The actual "Lost Coast" is north of Mendocino, a fairly wild, hippie, survivalist, inaccessible place, but we took its ideas and spread them along the central coast for the content — that mixed with a few stories from Sweden standing in for Oakland. No instrumentals, you're right, except "Aged in Wood," originally titled something like "Meanwhile, at the Love-In ..." — it's actually the same melody as used in "I Was Too High for the Love-In" but entirely transposed into a major key instead of a minor key. I think that both may have started as an instrumentals.
To sum it up, the record grew like a plant, with all of us as gardeners. It didn't take long to get it shaped up, really, it seemed to have its own life. Some of the recordings really show some maturity and musicianship growth on all of our part — after so long we actually know how to play pretty well these days, and the recordings contain some beautiful parts and arranging (if I do say so myself!) and some subtle beauty. I do try to work with the details of everything I record on to make it have enough to reward listeners the more they listen, and Camper has always mixed so that we can freak out that one kid sitting in the dark with headphones in Iowa when he discovers the ear candies.
Q: When [your latest solo album] "All Attractions" came out, I reeled to learn there had been a few solo titles since "Scissors and Paper." I felt like a fair-weather fan for not keeping up. But I suspect lots of fans experience music this way, running to stand still in the info stream. You're an artist and former label chief: What are the challenges today in keeping fans aware and informed of your output, and how do you meet them?
Segel: Man, I've all but given up at this point. It's really impossible to sell records at our individual level. We're lucky that Camper is as popular as it is in order to get a little word out about everything else we do. The thing is, I've also been a front-man or "solo artist" since 1989, but with no real label or agency. Victor and I started Magnetic [Records] in 1993 to make our own CDs. We shut it down finally in 2011, though "All Attractions/Apricot Jam" did really come out in 2012. Financially, I could barely afford to record a band and manufacture some CDs to say nothing of advertising or promotion. (Numbers have dropped precipitously for me in the last while: 1,000 CDs were made of "Scissors and Paper" in 2000, 1,000 of "Edgy Not Antsy" in 2003, then 400 of "Honey" in 2008 and 300 of "All Attractions" in 2012. All of them are gone now, either sold or trashed.) I actually hired the press/PR guy that Camper uses for promoting "All Attractions," but with my limited budget, I got a few nice reviews. I mean, you found out about it! And I think it's my best music so far! Magnetic was always just a boutique label to affix a barcode on our CDs. None of them really sold much, it was a hobby. The company never made money. But every new release was exciting and a new reason to keep going. I actually thought every time that certainly this time people would find out how great these records were!
I don't know what I'm going to do now, really. I don't think I can stop making music, of course, but it's very discouraging to me to continue to spend the time, effort and money for a few dozen people to hear it. I have a Bandcamp page attached to my website, where I have tons of music I've made, film scores, dance company music, all my solo albums, [the bands] Dent and Chaos Butterfly, some random other collections. Most of it is pay-what-you-will — that is to say: market value. That's no way to run a label or be a professional musician. Even with the exposure from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, it's a small circle of friends. So the answer is, I don't know. I have never been able to "sell" myself, my music (or, in fact, anything), and the new market demands hucksterism. I think that's sad for those of us who aren't hucksters, and leaves the market filled with exposure for marketeers more than musicians. I can't imagine any of my favorite artists ever being able to sell themselves, and I'm glad that most have not had to. Those that were forced into retirement or obscurity for financial reasons have my sympathy, to say the least.
Sadly, this all reminds me of one of my favorite musicians ever, who died last week: Scott Miller. He was in a band at UC-Davis when I was in high school in Davis, and I'd been a fan of his ever since, through Game Theory and the Loud Family and beyond. He basically stopped recording, to the concern of many, many fans, about eight years ago, as he had no label or backing and no means to see any new songwriting through to a recording that reached people. He wrote music criticism only (Music: What Happened?) and though many people wanted him to play and record more, he never did. Suddenly he died at 53 years old, and now we'll never get more of his brilliance.
Q: Tell me about your work at Pandora. What did you learn from the "inside" that illuminated (or darkened) your perspective on music and new media services?
Segel: Well, f---. You know, in the end I was fired. I had been teaching music theory and "Desktop Musicianship" (i.e., computer music) at The College of Marin and Ohlone College, but after the 2008 wide-scale economic f--- up, the state let go of a lot of the part-time contracts in the arts. So I applied in "the private sector." I actually thought Pandora would recognize the potential goldmine of musical knowledge and experience I represented, but of course it's a company and you're not paid to think. I tend to agree with Damon Krukowski, in his article in Pitchfork: These companies are about money, and music is simply the fodder they use to make money. I know [Pandora co-founder] Tim Westergren talks big about "being a musician" and how artist-centric the company is, but I never saw that really play out so well for musicians. In fact, where the company had been comprised of many, many musicians at the beginning, there were very few by the IPO. Ultimately, the disciplinary problems I had were based in continuing to "question decisions that had already been made" by those hierarchically above me in the company, even when they were basically unethical, like accepting ads from homophobic hate groups like "Speak Up University" and "Minnesotans for Marriage." But you know, I can't shut up so they "let me go."
I have read numerous articles saying that the trend in music "business" is even downloads will go the way of the CD and we'll only be left with streaming services (paying that ~$0.002 per stream in royalties). No individual could make money on that. It seems that only those who own the rights to millions of songs could. Also, of course, the providers of bandwidth and devices to listen with will get your money. For Pandora and Spotify to become profitable will mean that they sell more advertising and pay less royalties. Who wants that? Well, Wall Street does. And who makes the laws that support these things? I don't think it's the musicians.
Q: You've written a bit about the new business models for musicians. We're always hearing about the freedom offered by new media, but from my post it seems like musicians have to work harder and make less money. Right or wrong?
Segel: As I mentioned with respect to selling music above, I have found it harder to sell music and, yes, we work incredibly hard in Camper Van Beethoven both at recording and touring, and make very little money. So yeah, maybe there are people who can cash in on the "new models," but I haven't met them. All the musicians I know have had more and more trouble putting out records or touring to try to make ends meet. I know many who have given up.
I think the market as such is very geared toward quick runs from young bands and nobody is expected to ever really become a musician, something that takes time and effort. There has always been a focus on youth in rock music, but now there's even more necessity for youth because kids are the only ones who can be jobless and can live in poverty and enjoy the brief success while staying on couches on tour and saving nothing. By the time someone's 40 or so, it's much tougher to continue doing that, and now I'll be 50 this year and I have a child. There's no way I can support our family. In fact to be quite honest I've only made a living as a professional musician for maybe three years of the past 30, the rest of the time I worked other jobs to pay the rent — until I couldn't.
But I think that it's unlikely that the current crop of popular bands will be around in five or 10 years, and the market will continue to cycle through people who will put up with it until they can't. All the indie bands will be young, and few will ever be able to develop their musicianship or talent. Camper has been extremely tenacious, and part of that has to do with all of our inability to give up making music, so we've actually become decent musicians. It would be nice to make a living, but until we can, we'll have to tour only on occasion and record when we can. The problem of course is that work is a vicious cycle, the more time you spend at work the less you can spend being a musician. It's like that Onion article: When you're working 40 (or more) hour weeks, it's tougher and tougher to make the energy to do anything after work as you get older. And of course, the irony is that you really only get better as an artist with time. But yeah, current culture has no use for better artists, they want better spectacle, more youth, next big thing.
Q: There was CVB last month at SXSW, schlepping through sets like any other up-and-comers. In Chicago, you're booked into a very bro-centric sports bar. Are you comfortable at this mid-/survival level of the business, and what have been the ultimate ambitions of CVB all these years?
Segel: As David put it, "There's no benefit to quitting." We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time. SxSW is a particularly weird situation, it's like a big city where human life is a dime a dozen, and there everybody is a musician, so being a musician is worth even less. And it's sort of funny to play at these places where there are a zillion young bands to show off a little what it's like to be a grown up band who's been playing together for years. So who knows what ultimate good comes of our playing there, but it's usually an incredible chaos with some fun attached. I didn't get to see much besides Robyn Hitchcock this year, but in previous years I have been able to see a bunch of cool music!
Q: Your solo debut, "Storytelling," remains one of my top-five desert-island discs. I've rarely heard a better balance of really smart composition and successful improvisation. Can you talk a bit about how you maintain that tricky balance in projects like these and, I'm guessing, in Camper, too?
Segel: First off, thank you. This could be a very long answer, but I'll try to be succinct. I've always been heavily invested in both musical composition and improvisation, and the back-and-forth of these things. Improvisation is really just composing in real time. We may use many methods, like starting with a written riff or progression and improvising on it, or improvising from nothing and then choosing a good bit and "freezing" it into written form and then working on it. I mean, I think all composers do, we certainly know Bach and Beethoven did, and Charlie Parker and Miles and Ornette and Jimi and so on and so on. In Camper, we have a tendency to work the songs into a quintessential form and that remains, to a certain extent, the ideal — but then things slowly change. In the writing stages, we do a lot of improvising around certain ideas. I know that Greg likes to completely compose his parts during the recording sessions until they are "done" and then he will play that same recorded part in concert. I, on the other hand, rarely play the same thing twice, unless it's a complete written melody like in "Good Guys and Bad Guys" or "Chairman Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China" or similar. But take, for example, "You've Got to Roll" on "La Costa Perdida." In concert, we will mostly play the same thing as is the recorded version, but the quiet part of the breaks where I'm playing that bluesy Les Paul lead part, I can't even remember what I played on the recording, so I just improvise. I have the luxury of being able to improvise quite a bit, and I can get away with it in CVB, which I like. We used to have some time to do our version of Tusk or Interstellar Overdrive for an encore in Camper and that was some hella improv on all our parts!
When I was making "All Attractions," I had written the structural stuff for all the songs, and improvised a lot over it for the guitar leads and melodies and such, but when recording the last couple basic tracks, we had an afternoon free in the studio, so we improvised with no starting point more than the first note, Victor on bass, John Hanes on drums, Graham Connah on Hammond and me on guitar, and then I took those tracks home and made compositions out of the improvisations! That became the bonus disc, "Apricot Jam." After that, we only did a couple shows of the songs on "All Attractions", and the last few shows I've done have been entirely space-rock improvisation. It was easier than getting them together to rehearse, that's for sure.
Aside: You know, it occurs to me, as you mentioned missing the in-between of "Scissors and Paper" and "All Attractions," that my entire solo output is in pairs: "Storytelling" with the first Hieronymus Firebrain (self titled) CD, then the two HF "Here" and "There," then two Jack & Jill CDs (and two Dent cds), "Scissors and Paper" goes with "Edgy Not Antsy," and "Honey" with "All Attractions," both heavy electric guitar things. (I'm not counting the improv and electronic stuff like Chaos Butterfly.)
Q: I enjoyed your recent blog post about the bass guitar. What instrument have you not figured out yet that you'd like to?
Segel: Lap steel! (I'm still avoiding the banjo.)
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN & CRACKER
• 9 p.m. May 10
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Tickets: $15 advance, $17 door; (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The Smiths disbanded a quarter century ago after just five years and four studio albums — a comparatively short run given the lasting depth of their influence throughout indie rock. Ever since, getting them back together has been the holy grail of music promoters.
Millions have been offered. Coachella organizers allegedly promised to make the entire two-weekend festival 100 percent vegetarian to appease singer-lyricist Morrissey, an outspoken animal-rights activist, if he’d take their stage just with guitarist Johnny Marr and call it the Smiths.
But Morrissey’s publicist made the issue Taylor Swift-clear last October in this statement to Rolling Stone: “The Smiths are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to reunite — ever.”
Reasons are mixed. There’s animosity, certainly; Smiths bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce took Morrissey and Marr to court in the ’90s over royalties. Morrissey and Marr, by both accounts, haven’t spoken in years, though neither can state a particular reason.
Marr aided in remastering the Smiths catalog for a box set, “Complete” (2011), without input from the other members. Just this month, Marr announced a new solo album, “The Messenger,” his proper solo debut after years of working with other artists and recording in various guises. He’ll be launching a tour in March the same week Morrissey’s current leg wraps up.
Morrissey, 53, meanwhile, tours successfully without an album to support. He says the follow-up to “Years of Refusal” (2009) is recorded, but once again he’s without a record label to distribute it.
His return to Chicago makes good after last fall’s cancellation of a string of shows (including Oct. 27 here) in order to return to England to care for his ailing mother. Days before that announcement, Morrissey answered our questions via email — the only way he’ll consent to most interviews nowadays, after years of claiming to be misquoted — about his pending memoir, American politics, the endless Smiths reunion queries and his years of refusal.
Q: What is the status of the new album? You always seem to be shopping for labels; why not release it yourself?
Morrissey: I’m not very bright when it comes to business. Or anything else, come to think of it.
Q: Your set lists draw from many albums, many eras. What older songs have you reconsidered performing (or altered) as the years have passed?
Morrissey: The difficulty is that there are many songs, and I like almost all of them. The era is immaterial, but the earlier songs are more parochial. It never occurred to me that anyone outside of Manchester would like them, or even listen to them.
Q: During your interview last fall on “The Colbert Report,” it seemed as if Stephen Colbert genuinely startled you at least for an instant when he looked toward the wings and joked, “Please welcome, Johnny Marr …” If it had not been a gag, and Johnny had strolled onstage, what would have transpired?
Morrissey: It was a slight look of exhaustion that people still persist with the question. Consider how the musicians I work with now feel. They work hard and we constantly tour all over the world, and it’s always fantastic, yet they are never mentioned anywhere and must persistently put up with Smiths re-formation questions. The Smiths almost left me on a mortuary slab. Is that something anyone should attempt to survive twice? Never mind re-formations: Will I ever get credit for surviving the Smiths? Twenty-five years on, the Chicago show sells out very quickly. Does this mean absolutely nothing?
Q: I, for one, am a Smiths fan that wholly supports your conviction not to reunite the band. Not that I wouldn’t melt down if it were to occur, but I’ve seen so many reunions burst the bubble of a band’s treasured legacy. Explain your reasons for keeping the offers at bay.
Morrissey: Money is the wrong reason to re-form because it immediately puts you at the mercy of those who gave you the cash, and you must do as they demand in order to get the cash back for them. I’d honor any band who re-formed and quietly recorded and got on with being together and enjoying that experience away from the splash of print media. It never happens. Bands reform, announce stadium tours, announce sponsorship and merchandising deals, and then they rehearse together. Ugh.
Q: That being said, you recently told the Village Voice, about the making of “Viva Hate”: “I didn’t want to be a solo artist.” When did you begin to enjoy working solo, and what caused the turnaround?
Morrissey: I didn’t enjoy being solo until “Your Arsenal” (1992), but the best period has been “You are the Quarry” (2004) to date. Previously to then, I was far too hard on myself and I thought I’d be punished by God if I ever enjoyed it.
Q: When you set out reluctantly on that solo path, did you think you’d still be touring (and interviewing) in the 21st century? If not, what other possible futures crossed your mind?
Morrissey: I couldn’t imagine any solo future whatsoever. When the first single (“Suedehead”) entered at No. 6, I was shaken. That was back when No. 6 required 75,000 sales. Now, you can get to No. 1 with 16,000 sales.
Q: Last I heard, you were trying to edit down the memoir. What’s the retrospection been like for you?
Morrissey: It’s all very cleansing. The difficulty is not getting bored with the central character.
Q: You’ve again been touring America during our presidential campaign season. You dislike the royals, I know, but what’s your opinion of our election mania? Any advice/opinions this time around?
Morrissey: I think the fact that the two candidates are neck and neck in most polls reflects badly on Obama. He’s had four years to woo everyone, so he’s obviously not been that convincing. If the Republican candidate were more likeable than Romney I believe they’d storm the gates. Obama loves to talk. To talk and smile, and then to smile and talk.
Q: You promoted the Smoking Popes years ago (a Chicago band — reunited and active again, by the way). What young upstarts are you championing these days?
Morrissey: None. They all turn around and bite you.
Q: You’ve been through Chicago many times. Is it merely another date on the schedule, or have you been able to connect to the city in any way? A favorite bookstore, a favorite view, a dear acquaintance …?
Morrissey: A dear acquaintance … how funny.
with Kristeen Young
8 p.m. Jan. 26
The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $39.50-$79.50; (800) 745-3000; thechicagotheatre.com
UPDATE: Morrissey has postponed his Chicago concert yet again. Watch for details here.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The title of the first song on World Party's newest batch of recordings — "Arkeology," a five-disc, closet-cleaning retrospective, just left of a traditional box set — is a massive understatement for the project's central figure, singer-songwriter Karl Wallinger.
"Waiting Such a Long Long Time" finds Wallinger singing, in his world-weary voice over a party-pop guitar jangle, "I don't even know what I want anymore."
Which isn't really true. Not anymore.
"What I've been through, it's made me feel that all the stuff we worry about is not worth worrying about," Wallinger told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's very true. In my case, it's made me fatter. I had to be stronger to carry it all."
What he's been through is a virtual decade-plus absence from music following a brain aneurysm in 2000.
Following a brief stint with the Waterboys, contributing as keyboardist to the albums "A Pagan Place" (1984) and the phenomenal "This Is the Sea" (1985), Wallinger formed World Party — essentially a solo project but frequently featuring guitarist Dave Catlin-Birch, drummer Chris Sharrock and, early on, multi-instrumentalist Guy Chambers — then quickly charted a hit with the song "Ship of Fools" and enjoyed wide acclaim for an album of prescient environmental themes, "Goodbye Jumbo" (1990).
"Bang!" (1993), a superb album seamlessly blending genres from soul to rock to (briefly) opera, charted in Wallinger's native UK. But by the fifth World Party LP, "Dumbing Up" in 2000, many had stopped paying attention. Wallinger was already gone before he was really gone.
In February 2001, Wallinger was cycling with his son, Louis, when things went wrong.
"I just had a headache and said, 'I'm going to go to bed.' I came out half an hour later and said, 'I've got this headache — phone an ambulance,'" he recalled. "I woke up a day or two and two hospitals later. ... I came to feeling I'd just gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali and thinking, 'This is a bit strange.' I seemed fine, but it was a test weeks later when I looked into this periscope thing that we found my vision was wrong."
Wallinger, now 54, has no right-side vision in either eye.
As you might imagine, this poses two separate problems.
"I'm a menace when Christmas shopping. I do a lot of collisions and have to say I'm sorry a lot," he said.
More to the professional point: "Playing instruments is a bit weird now. I used to look at my right hand as I played piano. That's how I learned. Now I can't see my right hand. Same with the guitar — I'm right-handed, but I play upside down like Bob Geldof or Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, I've gotten the hang of both again."
Two months out of the hospital, Wallinger tried his first gig, a benefit show — just to see where his abilities stood. Also on the bill: Edwyn Collins, a contemporary of Wallinger's from the '80s band Orange Juice and his own subsequent solo career ("A Girl Like You") who'd suffered a double aneurysm in 2005. ("We're so competitive. He just had to have the bigger one," Wallinger quipped.)
His skills were largely intact, he found, but the recovery would be long and steep. Fortunately, Wallinger received an unexpected financial windfall.
The aforementioned Guy Chambers heard one of Wallinger's songs, "She's the One," and took it to his new songwriting partner, pop singer Robbie Williams. The 1997 piano ballad, which Wallinger said was knocked out "in 10 minutes and recorded in about half an hour," became a big hit for Williams.
"So we didn't have to sell the kids to chemical experiments or anything," Wallinger said. "I think I'm a bit of a lucky person."
Using his down time constructively, Wallinger began going back through old recordings. He wound up compiling an iTunes playlist with a runtime of 79 days — B-sides, rarities, Beatles covers, interviews and a lot of tour tapes. He whittled it down to five and a half days, and his manager edited that to four CDs, which would become the bulk of "Arkeology." Some extra DAT tapes and one new project, a sweet ballad called "Everybody's Falling in Love," comprised the set's fifth and lead-off disc.
"Like 'Words,' that track's a great one," Wallinger said. "We did it, put it in a box and forgot about it. Great fun, that one. It was good going back and kind of recapping the 25 years, a good thing for me to do at this point in time. I've got stuff that I've done during the last 10 years I'm still going through, but really I'd like to get in and record new stuff. I'd like to get a new 12-song record out next year."
"Arkeology" — 70 tracks, and a bargain at less than $40 — immediately sold out a limited run and is now on its third pressing.
After this string of acoustic dates in America — a half dozen shows featuring violinist David Duffy and guitarist John Turnbull — Wallinger returns home for his first full-fledged British concert in 15 years.
Everything you need to know about how his career has shaken out geographically is in this sentence: He plays the Cubby Bear sports pub in Chicago, but in November he headlines the Royal Albert Hall in London.
"I'm burning the candle at both ends," Wallinger said, "but I'm good, I'm healthy, and I'm up for this. I'm told a few fans might be, too. So we'll give it a go."
• 8 p.m. Aug. 30
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Sold out
• (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's been a banner year for power pop revivals. We've gotten new discs from Winston-Salem, N.C.'s the dB's (first with the original lineup in 30 years), Hawthorne, Calif.'s Redd Kross (first new material in 15 years) and now Zion, Ill.'s acclaimed Shoes — back with "Ignition," out now [★★★1/2], the first new album since 1994.
"When you go over the years and what we've been through, the delay makes sense. It just looks bad on paper," says founding Shoes member John Murphy with a chuckle. "I just saw No Doubt's together again. They haven't had a record in eight or 10 years. We just get used to the fact that these super-successful bands take forever to deliver a follow-up."
Shoes or any power pop band, really, could never be described as "super-successful." But while the core trio — singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, plus brother John Murphy on bass — has never had a mass following, they always seem to be followed.
When home-recording equipment was more available and affordable in the mid-'70s, Shoes were already there — recording three albums in their living room (the limited-release "Un Dans Versailles," 1975, the shelved "Bazooka," 1976, and the official debut, "Black Vinyl Shoes," later in 1976, which was hailed as "one of the finest home-brewed releases ever" by Trouser Press rock critic Ira Robbins).
When major record labels were flush and throwing money at bands, Shoes were there — getting picked up by Elektra for three albums (starting with "Present Tense" in 1979).
When the money ran dry and bands were being cut loose, many starting their own independent labels — Shoes were there, releasing compilations, live and new albums on their own Black Vinyl label through the '90s.
"Shoes were, quite simply, everywhere in the music industry from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s," says Mary Donnelly, a New York professor and blogger (powerpop.blogspot.com), who's about to publish Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes this fall. "They saw all the trends — the decadence and wild parties, money-is-no-object production and promotion, the crash of the industry in the early '80s, MTV (and the skepticism it engendered), the rise of college rock and indie and alternative, the problems wrought by independent distribution and the rise of digital recording. They were everywhere."
Murphy, ever humble and down-home, chuckles again.
"We've been kind of Forrest Gump-ing through time," he says.
Given how they pop up on the crest of each industry trend, you'd be forgiven for expecting their sound to have changed proportionally as well. Now in their late 50s, Shoes, however, have remained astonishingly consistent in their production of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop. The quality songwriting and, to some extent, the production of "Ignition" could fall anywhere within the band's nearly four-decade career.
"It's about how you absorb these things and how you turn them back out," Murphy says, trying to explain the band's through-line. "If you were to write the same song every year of your life, it would somehow be different each year. You'd attack it differently. It would come out of you differently. But it's still you writing the song."
"They tend to downplay their talents, but they're remarkable, instinctive writers," Donnelly says. "They can't even really explain what they do in a language that makes sense to anyone but themselves. And that hard work and authenticity shines through in everything they do."
Explaining the 18-year gap in new music, Murphy ticks off a litany of business woes that kept the band stymied. The shuttering of their recording studio, Short Order Recorder — a downtown Zion storefront where other revered power poppers, such as Material Issue and fellow Zion natives Local H, cut crucial records — was a "traumatic event," Murphy says. Selling the building took years.
The savior of Shoes, though, would be yet another home studio.
"We were at Gary's house one Sunday night, and we'd been there all night — it's midnight and we're getting ready to leave — and Gary says, 'Come here, I want to show you something,' " Murphy says. "Here it was. He surprised us. He'd moved in 2010 and started building this studio in his basement, buying gear along the way, stockpiling mikes and getting good deals.
"And Jeff happened to have a little song."
The song was "Out of Round," a few melancholy chords Jeff Murphy had cooked up, for which the other two dove into Klebe's basement to add a curious piano riff and some swirling sounds. It's an unusual track in the Shoes canon.
"We got into a groove. We kept going and going," Murphy says.
While much of "Ignition" wound up square within the footsteps of traditional Shoes, "Out of Round" isn't the album's only left-turn track. In our conversation, I had to bring up "Hot Mess," one of two songs credited to all three writers — and one with a surprising, almost AC/DC groove.
"Did you like it?" Murphy asks, nervously. "I ask because we knew it would be a polarizing track, that some people wouldn't dig it. Gary laid those guitars out, and Jeff and I said, 'Mmmm, sounds Stones-y!' He said, 'We could change that,' and I said, 'No, I don't think we should. Let's go down that road.' The thought process as we were building it was: What would Mick and Keith do? Plus, I started coming up with lyrics to make them laugh. I'd come out of the room, and they'd say, 'Did you just say...?!' But we really wanted this to sound like real music, not just a parody or a joke, not sarcastic. We wanted this, like anything we've done, to stand as real music."
Therein lies the struggle of every power pop band in America — striking the difficult balance between being influenced and being a thinly veiled cover band, between being a new voice and an echo.
The influences of Shoes are as obvious as they are alliterative: Beatles, Badfinger, Byrds, Big Star, Raspberries. But a 1979 feature in Trouser Press magazine quoted John Murphy describing the band's genesis as "a reaction to the things we hated. All there was at the time was Bowie, T. Rex and the Deep Purple school."
"We're more glass half-full on that now. That was pretty glass half-empty back then," Murphy says today. "Gary [then in Champaign] and I would write letters back and forth, talking early '70s and how things were about to get worse, saying, 'Ah, what happened to the early Beatles,' and 'Now all these horn bands like Chicago are coming along.' As soon as we found our way, here came disco, which absolutely took over. Now we can look back and see disco as this quaint period of time — aw, the cute little 'shake your booty' lyrics — like looking at 1920s music. But it didn't seem like that then. It was a survival thing for those who liked rock."
Donnelly describes growing up in a household full of brothers constantly playing Beatles records. "And just as I was reaching my music-buying stage, 12 or so, there was Shoes — like and not like at the same time," she says. "They were my first band, my declaration of independence, my own soundtrack. Though I never had the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak they promised me in junior high school, there was always something about the hard-soft dichotomy, the shifting voices of the three principals that just spoke to me about how beauty and pain and power can travel together."
So here's Shoes in 2012, still shifting voices and songwriting duties — just like kindred, talent-stuffed spirits such as Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, the dB's, etc. — for another finely crafted, homemade, indie-rock record.
They're so behind the times, they're current.
Murphy drops things in conversation like "That YouTube is something else" and "I don't even have an iPod," but it's one of his songs on "Ignition" that updates the time-honored romantic lament to include "rambling emails and bitter tweets" ("I Thought You Knew").
"Power pop always fits," he says. "In today's world, it's more indie or alternative, whatever that word means, but it still has the same direction. It's just that now we're trying to do it more adult — I hate to use that word. Maturity, maybe. People say, 'Oh, you're a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl band.' But not really. It's about relationship songs. That's relevant to any age, any era."
In addition to the new album and the publication of Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, Chicago's lauded Numero Group label is releasing this fall four vinyl Shoes LPs in a series ("One in Versailles," "Black Vinyl Shoes," "Bazooka" and "Pre-Tense Demos: 1978-1979," the demos for the "Present Tense" album). Expect the full Shoes vinyl experience, including lyrics sheets, photos and (yes!) T-shirt iron-ons.
An expanded best-of collection is due this fall, too, but Murphy says no live shows are currently in the works.
Shoes and Zion a matched pair
If you've ever read anything about the band Shoes, it's almost always been "Zion, Ill.'s Shoes."
Given the mythical power of the Chicago exurb's name, it's been attached to the band as a descriptor far more often than is the case with the origins of most other musical acts.
"Zion just has this weird mystery to it," bassist-songwriter Jeff Murphy says. "If you ask people in Chicago, they'll say they know it's dry and that the street names are all biblical."
Mary Donnelly's book on the band, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, includes a mini-history of the town, founded between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie.
"Zion was founded as a religious haven where spitting and bacon and alcohol and doctors were all illegal," Donnelly says. "But it didn't go to well for Dowie, who had pretty extravagant tastes, and the misfortune to get ill — a real problem if you're a faith healer and say that illness is the sign of Satan.
"By the time Shoes were raised there, it was still kind of weirdly religious, but no longer quite so cult-like. Still, they were raised in a town where bikinis and lottery tickets and beer were all banned by law. It's no wonder they were never a bar band: There were no bars!"
For an aspiring pop band, the association wasn't welcome in the beginning.
"At first, we tried to shake it, like we'd stepped in dog s---," Murphy says. "We thought, 'Are they making fun of us [by citing it all the time]?' Then we gave into it. It's part of our story. It sounds funny, I suppose. Everybody's gotta be from somewhere."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh — you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"
Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations — but not too far.
He began as a sought-after session guitarist in the early '60s, playing alongside rising luminaries like Hancock and Miles Davis, and by the late '70s he was singing, too, logging hits on the jazz charts, R&B charts and pop charts ("Breezin'," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway," respectively).
Today, he's still singing but back to spotlighting his first love, the subject of his latest album, "Guitar Man."
"'Guitar Man,' yeah, that's what I am," Benson chuckles during an interview from his home outside Phoenix. "This one's got a good selection of songs, not really connected to each other but just telling one story — about the guitar. It was the obvious title after hearing what we got. You know, I got a great band together, and we tried to pick songs we thought we could do well, things the public will believe. People have heard me do so many things, I've just got to find things that speak to my guitar."
Recorded with plenty of space for improvisation, "Guitar Man" features pop standards from various eras ("Paper Moon," "Since I Fell for You" and an intriguing "Danny Boy," as well as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "My Cherie Amour" and the lightest "Tequila" you've ever heard). The focus is definitely on the fingers.
" 'Paper Moon' — I mean, c'mon, man!" Benson says. "I was supposed to sing it. I taught the guys, and I played it. We heard it back, and I thought, man, it doesn't need any vocals. It captures that '40s mood, the vibe I heard under Nat King Cole. That was a good era. Nat played it very simple, but he was quite sophisticated in his approach."
Even before he began recording as a player, a very young Benson began his showbiz career as a singer: Little Georgie Benson, age 9.
"I wasn't a guitar player till many years later," Benson recalls. "Guitar gigs were everywhere in the '50s, and I started diddling around so I could keep working. Playing honky-tonk, simple stuff. I took a few gigs with an organ band that put me out front. I was 19 and touring with Brother Jack McDuff. People would see me and shout, 'Sing something, Little Georgie!' Jack did not like singers, period. But by the time I left his band, I was a bona fide guitar player."
By 1970, Benson was the No. 1 jazz guitarist in America.
"But I wasn't making any money to prove I was No. 1 anything. I wasn't getting ahead. I was existing," Benson says. "So I started dabbling back into vocals. The club owners loved it. If I did one vocal in the first set, the house wouldn't change over; people would stay for the second set. So I started doing that, and one day [producer] Tommy LiPuma came to me and said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago, and I've never understood why they don't use your voice.' I told my manager: 'That's my next producer.'"
After signing to Warner Bros. in 1976, the LiPuma-produced "Breezin'" album hit the Top 10 on the strength of Benson singing a ballad, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." A surprise hit, Benson kept trotting out his silky smooth tenor, scoring more hits from the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night" two years later. The album sold 5 million copies.
In between, Benson sang a song for a 1977 film about boxer Muhammad Ali. "The Greatest Love of All" reached No. 2. Barely a decade later, a new singer named Whitney Houston would take the song to No. 1.
"I met her just before she recorded it," Benson says. "I met her on the street near the Empire State Bulding. She got her hair done at the same place I took my boys. She saw me on the sidewalk and fell backwards, saying, 'You're one of my favorite artists! I'm recording that song!' One day I heard it on the radio and said, 'I wonder if it's that kid.' Sure enough."
Benson's band in Chicago will include local native Oscar Seaton, an alumnus of Ramsey Lewis' pop-jazz trio in the '60s.
with Boney James
• 7:30 p.m. March 23
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $39.50-$250; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In his 1976 appearance as a celebrity guest on "The Muppet Show," singer-songwriter Paul Williams sang one of his own songs accompanied by a small Muppet choir, a backing band by the name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (showing remarkable restraint), and the subdued piano of Rowlf the Dog.
The tune was called "Sad Song," but Williams remembers it as one of the happiest moments of his life.
"Oh, it's one of those Hallmark lyrics I wrote, basically a co-dependent anthem, which is pretty much what I spent my life writing. But the way it worked on the show is a perfect example of this intense emotional connectedness we feel with these characters," Williams says.
In the scene — see it and other great Muppet music moments here — the song winds to a close with Williams leaning on Rowlf's piano nonchalantly singing about "the sad song that used to be our song," a sharply sentimental but sweet moment, and as Rowlf plays the final chords, he glances at Williams, as if to say, "Did that help?" Rowlf then closes the piano keys and gently pats the lid.
"I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles," Williams says, laughing heartily at the 35-year-old memory.
Music always has been the beating heart of the Muppets. That "intense emotional connectedness" fans feel to the felt friends created by the late Jim Henson has fueled excitement about the first new Muppet movie in 12 years — "The Muppets," opening Wednesday in theaters — and it comes directly from the power of the franchise's iconic songs, such as Williams' and Kenny Ascher's "Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along."
For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, the music made an impact beyond celebrity moments on "The Muppet Show," the syndicated TV variety series Henson produced from 1976 to 1981. Those moments included Elton John performing "Crocodile Rock" with the song's namesake and Julie Andrews donning Maria's dress again for "The Lonely Goatherd" on a farm.
"The Muppet Show" celebrated pop songs by reimagining them, adding narratives and creating set pieces in the years just before MTV — always stopping just short of parodying them. Like classic Looney Tunes cartoons, this was a show aimed chiefly at adults; kids could LOL to Muppets dancing around to the Village People's "Macho Man," but adults were ROTFL when Gonzo's disco-dressed chicken gang rumbled with a posse of butch, leather-clad pigs. The show also unearthed folk classics, mid-century lounge music, Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and rhythm & blues.
"We covered everything — every genre and every century," Muppet performer Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot and others) told the SF Weekly in 2007. "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical. I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy."
The new Muppet movie, fortunately, works with music in the same spirit. "The Muppets" soundtrack is not, thankfully, "The Green Album," an unnecessary, marketing-driven collection released in August featuring current indie-rockers (OK Go, Andrew Bird, Weezer, etc.) covering classic Muppet songs. The Muppets are doing their own thing again.
The film's director and music supervisor both come from a musical-comedy project that isn't just a kindred spirit; its title sounds like its own Muppets production number: "Flight of the Conchords."
"The Muppets and 'Flight of the Conchords,' yeah, there are quite a lot of similarities," says Bret McKenzie, half of the Conchords duo and music supervisor for "The Muppets." (The film's director is "Conchords" co-creator and director James Bobin.) "I really didn't have to shift gears, like, at all."
"Flight of the Conchords" was basically an adult "Muppet Show." Few actors are more Muppety than Jermaine Clement, and the songs he and McKenzie wrote for each episode of their acclaimed HBO comedy series (and live concerts) kept things movin' right along in the same adventurous, wondrous and usually optimistic spirit. Henson no doubt would have loved the "Bowie" episode, with Clement dressed up as "1986 David Bowie from the movie 'Labyrinth,' " a puppets-'n'-people fantasy film that Henson directed.
"There's a quality to the production [of 'The Muppets'], a looseness that reflects the looseness of the Muppets themselves, and I think you could say the same about [the Conchords] most times," McKenzie says. "This guy Chris Caswell, who worked on the original Muppets music as a piano player, told me Henson said, 'If it sounds too good, it's not right.' I kept thinking about that a lot. Finding the line between that looseness and a grand musical number — it's a challenge."
Plus, the Muppet universe has a few commandments.
"I quickly had to learn a few things," McKenzie says. "Like, in the Muppets' world, they've always existed. Kermit was never a piece of fabric. I had one lyric with Kermit saying, 'I remember when I was just a piece of felt,' and they said, 'Oh, no, you can't use that.' Another thing is that all these characters have specific vocal ranges. If they go too high or too low, they stop sounding like the character we know. If Miss Piggy goes too high, she sounds like a squeaky mouse.
"Also, all animals can talk — except chickens. They can only cluck. I had this big finale with everyone singing along, and we cut to the chickens, and I said, 'OK, chickens sing.' 'Oh, no, chickens can't sing.' So it's even funnier, because it's, 'OK, cluck,' and they cluck, cluck, cluck."
McKenzie's "Life's a Happy Song" has such a finale — a classic Muppet cluster-cluck that even includes lines sung by Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney and indie rocker Feist. It's one of four new songs McKenzie wrote for "The Muppets" (the others are "Let's Talk About Me," "Man or Muppet" and "Me Party"), and he oversaw the production of other original songs, as well as the film's reprise of favorites like "Rainbow Connection."
The film also includes actor Chris Cooper, who plays villainous oilman Tex Richman, performing — ye gods — a rap song.
"The rap song was a very dangerous idea," McKenzie says. "I arrived and that was already in the script, so I had to make it work. The risk is that it will be a joke from the late '80s. We've all seen people rapping badly. So I gave Chris some rapping lessons — on Skype. If you can imagine, Chris Cooper and I rapping on Skype. It was so bizarre, one of many bizarre moments in this experience. God, it was funny." He laughs.
"He does a stellar rap performance, I must say. We had to make it Muppety, though, you know? We joked about adding, like, some Kanye AutoTune, but it's not about making some contemporary, winking reference. I didn't want this to sound like a Hannah Montana album."
A star is reborn
"Muppety." It's an adjective they all use. Williams says it's a quality he first spotted early in the morning.
"I was a solid fan of everything Henson before he asked me to come over and do 'The Muppet Show,' because living on the road at that time, the best, most intelligent entertainment we could find on television while getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to the next city was 'Sesame Street,' " he says.
The diminutive Williams was once a huge star, lest we forget. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (from "A Star Is Born"), the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson (48 times!). By the '80s, he fell off the radar due to deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, a story that's told in a new documentary currently making the film-fest rounds, "Paul Williams: Still Alive." Williams also is in his second term as president of ASCAP.
"Everybody wanted to do 'The Muppet Show' because it was so very hip," Williams says. On the set of the show, "I understood the magic of what was happening when I was standing there talking to Jim and Frank [Oz, founding Muppet puppeteer and voice actor], and Frank has Miss Piggy on his arm and Jim has Rowlf and Kermit on his arms, so it was all of us in this conversation. There was this extra level of engagement, a kind of medium, that really made it special. Songs came alive in that."
After his "Muppet Show" appearance, Henson asked Williams to write some songs for another project he was working on, a holiday special that would double as a workshop for some production techniques later perfected for "The Muppet Movie" (1979). The special was "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" for HBO.
Their relationship cemented, Williams went on to co-write the now-classic tunes for the first Muppets film. He remembers a moment in the creative process during that film that summarized the unique nature of creating with Henson.
"I love Gonzo most of all," Williams says. "We're all landlocked birds, you know? There was a great scene where the Muppets break down on the road in the desert, and I said to Jim, 'You know, I'm a child of the '60s' — I'm 21 years sober now, of course, but in those days, there were a variety of chemicals involved, and people were having a lot of spiritual awakenings as a result. I said, 'What if we write about that? Here's Gonzo experiencing that feeling of connectedness.' Jim said, 'That's really nice. What if we also get beyond the metaphoric and allow Gonzo to actually experience flying?' So he wrote that whole fair scene where Gonzo gets the balloons and is taken away just to support the song. It's so Muppets — it's a lofty dream squarely rooted on the ground."
So many songs: 10 great Muppet music moments
As you gear up for Muppet-mania this week ahead of the new movie, "The Muppets" — read about the Muppets music and the Flight of the Conchords connection — here are 10 great musical moments from our felt friends (in no particular order), from the show, the movies and the viral videos.
Get this: The song "Mahna Mahna," written by Piero Umiliani, first appeared in a 1968 Italian film ("Sweden: Heaven and Hell") about Nordic sex, drugs and suicide. Thankfully, it resurfaced a decade later as a perfect set piece for "The Muppet Show," featuring two fluorescent pink cows (?!) and one very groovy beatnik.
'Last Time I Saw Him' with Diana Ross
Performing with Muppets is a transformative experience for some singers. In this clip from the fourth season of "The Muppet Show," Diana Ross appears more natural, relaxed and happy than she ever did with the Supremes, first sitting on the stoop and jamming with a few Muppets, then turning it into a full-on production number with a great arrangement that ambles like a Muppet road reverie. By the end of the tune, Muppet horn players are in a Dixieland breakdown, and Ross puts a period on the number with a hammy vaudeville face.
The Muppets started a comeback a couple of years ago with a series of YouTube videos — more respectful pop song covers — like this Muppety take on Queen's popera.
'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Sure, "The Muppet Show" had a laugh track, but some poignant moments found their way in. Sgt. Floyd Pepper, of the Muppet band Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem, occasionally turned in cool, calm readings of pop songs. His performance of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (a duet with Janice, "fer sure") is smooth, but this take on this George Harrison song is a piece of pre-MTV perfection, setting up a little narrative in the scene — complete with Miss Piggy in silhouette during a very "Eleanor Rigby" kind of moment — and creating a transcendent moment, especially when Floyd caresses his guitar and says, "Oh, baby, don't cry."
How do you celebrate St. Patty's Day in Muppetland? With the three tenors, of course — the Swedish Chef, Beaker and Animal. Assembling three of the Muppets no one can understand to sing such a classic tune is only the start of the hilarity. The rest of it follows when Beaker overcomes his anxiety for a solo, Animal goes off actually looking for Danny, and the turtlenecks.
'Sad Song' with Paul Williams
After singer-songwriter Paul Williams made this appearance on the first season of "The Muppet Show" in 1976, Jim Henson asked him to write more Muppets music. That turned into a collaboration that lasted decades and produced some of the Muppets' most iconic songs, including "Rainbow Connection." Williams said of the scene: "I mean, Rowlf did more with the closing of that piano than most actors ever got from Orson Welles."
Animal vs. Buddy Rich
"The Muppet Show" showcased all kinds of music, including jazz. In this scene, Animal is let off his chain to challenge revered jazz player Buddy Rich to a drum battle. While Animal hollers like a tennis pro during the match, Rich flies over his kit with power and panache. Animal's drums, incidentally, were performed on the show by British jazz drummer Ronnie Verrell.
'In the Navy'
First, this is the second Village People song the Muppets covered (the other, well ...). For this musical number, the navy in question is a horde of marauding Muppet Vikings, and when they chant "We want you as a new recruit!" — they're not kidding. They come ashore and proceed to shanghai villagers into shipboard service. Educational on sooooo many levels.
'Grandma's Feather Bed' with John Denver
John Denver forged a lasting kinship with the Muppets — he made several "Muppet Show" appearances, hosted a Christmas special and the 1982 special "Rocky Mountain Holiday" — which began with this odd performance. Perhaps it was a less jaded era, so creators and audiences didn't see anything creepy about Denver hopping into bed with a bunch of Muppets, having a pillow fight with them, or dressing in drag as Grandma.
The movies are filled with great Muppet songs (one of my favorites is "The Happiness Hotel" from "The Great Muppet Caper"), but the benchmark was always Paul Williams' Oscar-nominated gem from the very first opening credits.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lindsey Buckingham solo albums have been rare treats for rock fans — until recently. After averaging eight-year interims between albums throughout the '80s and '90s, the Fleetwood Mac singer-guitarist has delivered three new albums in the last five years.
"There was a time when I was the Terrence Malick of rock in terms how the projects were spread out," Buckingham, 61, told the Sun-Times during a recent interview.
It's not that he's suddenly more prolific. He's simply been able to keep Fleetwood Mac's grubby paws off these batches of songs. Several Mac albums started as Buckingham solo projects, including 1987's "Tango in the Night" and the 21st-century comeback studio set, 2003's "Say You Will," which is virtually the Buckingham solo album it started out to be plus a few harmonies and Stevie Nicks songs.
The new album, "Seeds We Sow" (Buckingham) [★★★], finds Buckingham not only solo but independent — self-releasing the record after ending a three-decade relationship with Warner Bros. We spoke with Buckingham about the new album, new personal challenges and plans for Fleetwood Mac ...
Q: We last spoke amid the Fleetwood Mac's Unleashed Tour in 2009. You described the experience then as "hang time" for the band and "a proving ground." What came out of the experience, what was proven?
Lindsey Buckingham: To me, it kind of revealed itself to be a freeing experience. You know, I've got this large machine with Fleetwood Mac, and then this small machine with the solo work. As any filmmaker who's done an indie vs. a big-budget project will tell you, it's the small projects where you're able to take the risks and grow and follow your heart to the greatest degree. Fleetwood Mac went out on that tour without an album to support; we were basically doing a body of work. I think any band that's been around for a while, eventually you get to a point where your audience is less interested in hearing anything new from you. When you come to terms with that, it's kind of cool! I can go out now with the solo stuff and grow and reaffirm the transcendent aspects of playing, and then I can bring that back to Fleetwood Mac to enhance what we already have.
Q: Mac is planning a tour next year, again without a new record to support?
LB: That's what I've heard through the grapevine. I've read Mick [Fleetwood, Mac's founding drummer] saying that in interviews. I'd be surprised if something didn't happen.
Q: It's always funny to me, hearing you talk about how you communicate — or don't — with the other band members. We always think rock bands are closer than they usually are. But you're hearing Mick's thoughts via the media.
LB: Well, yeah, I spent some time with Stevie recently making her album. I speak with Mick once in a while. We don't feel a need to hang as a community at this point. That's probably best.
Q: It's been nice to see three solo albums in a row, none of which have been hijacked to become a Mac album. How'd you manage to keep the band away from these songs?
LB: After "Under the Skin" and "Gift of Screws," I had to tell them: "Don't bother me for three years!" My material on the last Fleetwood Mac album, "Say You Will," was meant to be a solo album, and if you take that material on its own it would hold up well as a solo album. The hijacking phenomenon has happened several times. So I started by telling them to leave me alone — and they did! I did two albums back-to-back and toured both, and I wasn't planning to make this third album. It just came out of me, a very spontaneous thing.
Q: The press sheet for the new album makes a big deal out of your DIY approach — writing, recording, producing, mixing it all yourself. But that's not unusual for you, right?
LB: I always make the analogy to painting. Working with a band is more like movie making; it's more political to get from point A to point B in the creative process. When I work alone, it's me slopping colors on the canvas. I don't have to have a notion for a whole song. It can be a far more meditative process. The point of departure on this project is releasing it myself.
Q: You're a full-fledged indie-rocker now.
LB: Yes, and it feels good. Warner Bros., even in the best of times for the record industry, never stepped up to the plate for my solo work. They always said, "OK, fine, but let's get back to what's important," i.e., the band.
Q: So you're on your own, but Mac is still on Warner?
LB: Well, that's a whole other complex question. Technically, no, the band is not on Warner. There are legal snags I don't even want to go into. If Fleetwood Mac does do another album, I'd love to see us do something like what the Eagles did with Walmart.
Q: You've mentioned a lot recently that part of what has made you more prolific is how content you are in your family and personal life. I thought an artist had to be discontented to produce his best work.
LB: I thought that, too. Isn't that funny? Certainly part of the appeal of Fleetwood Mac has been people buying into the struggle of our private lives and realizing we're writing about what's actually going on between us — the musical soap opera that's been a subtext of everything, the history of us having successful careers but being utter failures in our personal lives, I would say. ... I was lucky to meet someone [wife Kristen] and have all this happen at a late point in my life, after I was done with all that garbage. It's allowed me to completely dispel the notion that family and children are death to an artist. It depends on the individual. There are, though, a lot of artistic things that can be approached and written about within the balanced framework of a stable family life.
Q: Your son is almost a teenager now. Has he started his own musical journey, and has any of it had an impact on you musically?
LB: He's 13 and hormonal. He turned on a dime 10 months ago into a different person. You hear about that, but nothing prepares you for it. He's an intent listener. He'll burn CD compilations of things he likes. I'll listen; some of it makes sense to me, some of it doesn't. It's all pretty thoughtful, though. He also has a healthy ... not a disregard but a healthy ambivalence for what I do. He looks at me on stage and basically thinks, "There's Dad showing off again."
Q: Has he turned you on to anyone in particular?
LB: I don't know the names of some of the people he's been listening to. He takes it in one song at a time.
Q: Does that bother you, as a traditional album artist?
LB: It gives me pause and it doesn't at the same time. When I was a young boy, all we listened to was singles, 45s. People made albums, but it wasn't an art form. Albums then were two singles and a lot of throw-away. Then the Beatles defined it as an art form, and some of us are still doing that. I had this discussion with [my son] the other day a few months back, in fact. I was struggling over the sequence of the album. He said, "Dad, why are you spending so much time on the running order?" I said, "Well, it's like a movie. You can have a lot of great scenes, but if you don't edit it together in the right order, the relationship to each other, the story you're trying to tell — it won't be a good movie." He just looks at me and goes, "Yeah, whatever."
• 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $55, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Neil Finn, the leader of Crowded House, has a new music project inspired by his empty house.
"The kids have left home, and we've got a bit more time on our hands," Finn told the Sun-Times this week. "This is the kind of thing you do when you're rattling around the place."
Finn's speaking of his wife, Sharon, with whom he's formed a new band, Pajama Club — so named because the songs grew out of late-night jams the couple had while drinking wine in their PJs. Their son, Liam Finn, 27, now has an acclaimed career of his own.
Pajama Club is the latest outing for Finn, whose lengthy career began in the late '70s with down-under pop band Split Enz and was followed by his own trio, Crowded House ("Don't Dream It's Over," "Something So Strong"), a solo career and occasional albums with his brother, Tim Finn, as the Finn Bros. After the death of drummer Paul Hester in 2005, Crowded House reunited and has since recorded two more albums ("Intriguer," the latest).
For Pajama Club, the Finns are joined on stage by New Zealand indie-rocker Sean Donnelly — who had a broad hand in "updating" the PJ Club songs, Finn said — and drummer Alana Skyring. The group's self-titled debut album is due Sept. 13.
Finn spoke with us about the new project — and his many others ...
Q. I understand this started late at night at home, but you're also playing different instruments.
A. That's right. I played drums and Sharon played bass, instruments on which we've no skills. All the songs came from these bass-and-drums grooves. I've never written like that before, and it sounded to my ears quite fresh. To find new angles at this point is a joy. It's really fun to play, and we came up with stuff I wouldn't normally come up with.
Q. Are you playing drums on stage?
A. I play some guitars on stage, and drums for one song.
Q. Of all new instruments, why drums?
A. Every singer fancies himself a drummer. I thought I was totally challenged in that department until one night at [Los Angeles nightclub] Largo with Jon Brion I ended up on the drum kit for an extended period. I held it down rather well until "All You Need Is Love," and those bars of five completely stuffed me up. But that was the incentive. I can't do anything flash, but I can hold down a feel.
Q. How much have you thought about Paul as you play the drums?
A. Not much overtly, though it's reminded me what a great drummer he was. The way he played his high hat and the feel he got is very important to the way I play guitar. I'm attempting to provide the same feel, but it's not easy to find. There's something in the way he swung that matches exactly with the way I play acoustic guitar. I've got that same swing in my head because my body is genetically programmed to him now.
Q. The Pajama Club songs are ... I want to say dark, at least for you. Is that accurate?
A. It's got a jammy, dark atmosphere to it, sure. Some songs on the album are a little darker, a little more open-ended than you might be used to from me. There are psychedelic touches, if I may be so bold. But there's also a lot of simple, groove-oriented stuff. It's quite eclectic in the true sense of the word.
Q. You're finally working out your love of [early-'80s dance band] ESG, I guess?
A. That was one of the initial inspirations, yes — those first dabblings with ESG, early-'80s bass grooves, wit that chanty stuff on top. We were attempting an homage to that concept, though it's more songy, for obvious reasons.
Q. What's the status of Crowded House?
A. We've got songs circling there, too. I was in the studio with them earlier in the year. Hopefully something will emerge next year.
Q. Anything with Tim?
A. Not currently, but we've been talking, trying to will it back into being.
Q. Will you work directly with Liam?
A. We've shared the stage on occasions, and we've talked about and will do some recording together. It's almost overdue now. He's doing his own thing, which is right and proper. I think we've got an album in us, too, he and I. They're backing up, all these projects.
Q. It's not easy to keep track of you.
A. I'm naturally restless. It's possibly confusing for the general public.
8 p.m. July 1
Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $20-$22, ticketfly.com
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Danny Fallis just doesn't get it.
The new Web site for his band, Tall Tales, recently went online and already fans are contacting him by email to request copies of the old cassettes — "Crime in a Bucket," "Your Analysis" and "Damn Kat."
"Who in the world is looking for 'Your Analysis'?" he wondered aloud recently.
For most has-been college party bands, that momentary curiosity would simply be a funny moment in an otherwise adult day. For Tall Tales, however, it's new encouragement.
They are, indeed, a has-been college party band — four Tulsa natives who were a hit in Norman throughout the early '90s — but they've also reunited and recorded a new CD, "Pot Pie."
"It's absurd," Fallis snorts. "Our great rock 'n' roll reunion? Please. There are no false expectations from this. It's all joking and fun."
Tall Tales was always thus — a smart-aleck foursome that often performed in pajamas and sang quirky, throw-away ditties such as "Sheeps a-Grazin'," "Me So Horny," "Dead Kids on the Block" and "Bruised Banana."
But they were popular, filling Norman clubs such as Rome XC and Mr. Bill's, and by '93 they had several major record labels spinning what would be the band's last recording before breaking up, the CD "69 Minutes."
Fallis remembers how close the band came to the big time.
"When was that? Yeah, Valentine's Day, 1993," he said. "We were supposed to play at Kelly's (a Norman nightclub) with Bunnies of Doom opening.
"Tyson (Meade, leader of the Chainsaw Kittens) and I were driving to the gig from my pre-party, and we couldn't find any parking. We get closer to the club, and I can't get in. I was like, 'What's going on here tonight?'
"I finally got backstage, and we got into our pajamas and animal slippers. We start the show, lead into 'Cousins,' and I look out and see people standing all the way to the back, with more outside trying to get in. I thought, 'This is what we wanted.'
"And a month later, Rob tells us he's going to Russia."
Tall Tales guitarist Rob Reid left the Norman-based band of Tulsa natives for a post-graduate program in Russia and, basically, didn't come back. He wound up in New York, making records as Bob Bob Bob, and spending the next decade trotting the globe as a writer for Lonely Planet travel guides.
Fallis soldiered on with Tall Tales — long enough for two of the band's tracks to land with N.O.T.A., Brother Inferior, Pitbulls on Crack and others on the 1995 Tulsa rock compilation "Rhythm of Damage" — but things, as they do, eventually fell apart. (Greg Dobbs, who replaced Reid, is also part of the reunion effort.)
However, Reid's travel-writing trips brought him through Oklahoma in 2000, and he called Tall Tales drummer Alan Hiserodt in Norman. Hiserodt has remained active in the ever-changing Norman music scene, also drumming now in the pop-rock band Klipspringer.
Bassist Mitch Newlin also was in town, married and still writing the kind of funny-ha-ha (OK, sophomoric) songs for which Tall Tales was briefly famous. (One of Newlin's ditties, "Lost My Penis," was voted "song of the year" in 1999 by the Oklahoma Daily newspaper at the University of Oklahoma.) He was up for a jam with his old bandmates.
Suddenly, Fallis was driving to Norman, and Tall Tales was a band again — writing and recording new songs, no less.
"I hadn't done music in so long," Fallis said during an interview at the end of his shift at a Tulsa advertising agency. "I knew I would revisit it eventually, but I got so busy in my life. Then Rob calls me, wanting me to do this. . . . I was nervous. I hadn't sung in six years. I was trying to sing in the car on the way to Norman, knowing this would be happening. I'd go into these coughing fits.
"We started playing, and we didn't play one old song. We started writing. After an hour it was as if we'd never stopped."
He paused, gazed into his beer. "It's scary to think about what would've happened if we hadn't stopped."
The chemistry was immediate; the recording process, well — it started four years ago.
"I liked the old days when a weekend, a faulty four-track and 58 beers meant a Monday morning EP," Reid said in a recent email from his home in New York City. "It's taken us longer than the (Pink) Floyd to do something built around my hasty, flip, off-handed progressions. I'm not 100 percent comfortable with such a setting. You only get one comeback — not that anyone's waiting for it."
"Pot Pie" finds the band capturing that former, reckless spirit. The song titles give it away: "UFO," "Hi-Def TV," "Liver and Onions," "Psychic Hotline Girls," "(Never Go Outside While There's A) Nuclear War" and more.
And who will seek out this album?
"Well, that one guy who wants 'Your Analysis' — I'll bet he'll buy the new one, too," Fallis said.
Believe it or not, Fallis says the band already has finished half of a "second reunion CD."
"Pot Pie" is now available through the band's Web site, www.talltales.info.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Rod Bryan keeps the Little Rock faithful alert to his Anthro-Pop record-shop inventory through an online message board. His occasional missives wear his attitude on their e-sleeve.
"Please disregard above adverts," his online "blog" advises at the top of the page, referring to the current strip hawking cell phone minutes.
"Got a bunch of great used '80s vinyl from the Replacements, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, the dB's," he announced in December. Then he added, "Also good stuff from Arkansas natives Johnny Cash, Jim Dickinson, Ho-Hum, Jason Morphew ... Levon Helm."
Every monthly announcement also mentions the arrival of new records from the Fall. Rod loves the Fall.
There's some self-promotion to this. In fact, Anthro-Pop as a whole exists as an outpost of Rod's personal interests.
Rod and his brother Lenny are foundation members of Little Rock semi-legendary pop band Ho-Hum, the band that's usually playing on the stereo at Anthro-Pop. It's a band that sounds like all of the above listed cornerstone acts playing at once, particularly if some of the records had been warped by the southern Arkansas sun in the back of Lenny's car.
The quartet is comprised of the Bryan brothers — plus relative newcomers Brad Brown and Sam Heard — hulking but otherwise nondescript guys who grew up in Bradley, Ark., a dying town on a forgotten railroad southeast of Texarkana. It's the kind of place where listening to a band like the Minutemen earned frowns from the townsfolk. Selling the same records — and their CD reissues — to a new generation in the capital city is poetic justice. If it trains young ears to like those same sounds that are now muddied and metamorphosized in the aural ambrosia of Ho-Hum, even better.
Ho-Hum, on the other hand, has never gotten a break and probably never will. In the old model of the music business, that would be a cryin' shame. In the classified and categorized, segmented and specialized 21st century, it's just business as usual.
For whatever it's worth, though, Ho-Hum has its core following. They are anxious, underappreciated fans who will lean into your personal space with set jaws and proselytize fiercely about the most exciting, innovative and invigorating band you've never heard. There aren't enough superlatives in their vocabularies, and — for Ho-Hum — there aren't enough such fans.
"We're a word-of-mouth sensation," Rod says. "The place we're playing in Tulsa is, what, 100-capacity?"
Influential despite themselves
Rod hunkers down behind the counter near the door of Anthro-Pop. It's a pretty standard indie record shop — dig the wall covered with 45's — except that most new homes are built with larger walk-in closets.
"It's not quite Championship Vinyl ('High Fidelity')," he says. "There are a bunch of kids that want to hang out here, but there's no room for more than about one or two customers."
He fixes turntables on site for extra cash, and frequently he's so involved in fiddling with his digital sampler that he snarls and discourages incoming foot traffic. Today, his conversation has surly undertones.
"Even moderate success is worse than anonymity," he declares. "That's where I am today. I mean, we're getting good press on the new record, but all that means is that everybody wants a free copy. We never get paid for these records."
The eighth full-length from Ho-Hum, "Near and Dear," was released last fall. Its 11 tracks of typically dense, cleverly arranged, emotive Southern pop have indeed furthered the band's reputation as the best sleeper act south of the Mason-Dixon. This time, review requests came from as far as the New York Press, which touted the music in a rambling review as "extraordinary," "triumphant" and, er, "winsome."
More superlatives, and still the Bryans must work day jobs to pay the bills.
"I make a lot more money playing in a cheesy cover band than I do in Ho-Hum," Rod says, speaking of the Sugar Kings, the pride of central Arkansas wedding receptions and private parties. "Though I'm sick of playing 'Brown-Eyed Girl.' Even Van Morrison hated that song before it was off the charts."
Ho-Hum's street cred, though, is off the charts in Little Rock. At least a half dozen Little Rock bands are currently at work on a Ho-Hum tribute CD. Tulsa favorites the Boondogs are contributing a track, "Funny," from Ho-Hum's 1997 album "Sanduleak."
"I think there's a pretty tight group of artists we've influenced regionally," Rod says. "We've gotten into New York and L.A., too, but kind of what we do tends to speak to people around here. I mean, it might speak to more people around the country if we'd ever have any marketing. Even our major-label record had a very ramshackle marketing effort."
The end is the beginning
OK, there was that one break.
After rising through the Arkansas rock scene in the early '90s, Ho-Hum attracted the attention of Tom Lewis, a scout for John Prine's Oh Boy record label. Shortly after, Lewis wound up at Universal Records. He remembered Ho-Hum and offered them a contract.
The band recorded its national debut, "Local," at the famed Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. At the production helm were no other than Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (the Smiths, David Bowie, Bush). Universal helped the band tour the continent. The recipe for success could not have been seasoned any better.
"But it was a disaster," Lenny says. "I hate that record. I've never liked it."
The problem: Langer and Winstanley's production ideas ran contrary to what the Bryan brothers wanted. Under contract for the label, the Bryans had virtually no say in the matter. "Local" was not promoted and wound up in bargain bins by the end of '96.
That was not, however, the end of the story.
In fact, it was the beginning. The very things that made "Local" difficult to produce and promote remain the things that make Ho-Hum so unique. The frustration they experienced with Universal only strengthened their resolve. They continued making records at home in Arkansas, and their records increasingly sounded like Arkansas.
"That was really why 'Local' failed. It's because we wanted to sound like ourselves — like these guys from Bradley," Rod says. "Once we were done, they just wanted us out of the way so the producers could make it sound like New York."
"We could have made the jump to live somewhere else, you know?" Lenny ponders. "But I always admired a band like R.E.M. because they were from Georgia and they stayed there. You think of R.E.M., you think of Athens, Ga. You think of the Replacements, you think of Minneapolis. We wanted those terms: to be successful but stay here."
It's the same sentiment often expressed by the Flaming Lips, the now famous and respected rock trio that has insisted on basing its operations at home in Oklahoma City. Such stubbornness, usually over time, allows a distinct musical personality to form and grow. Eventually, after cultivating itself in relative isolation, the band sounds like the Next Big Thing.
"I mean, I like being a critic's darling," Lenny says. "Our integrity is pretty much intact."
Magic mystery four
The band's cult breakthrough was, undoubtedly, 1999's "Massacre" on HTS Recordings. The melodies swirl. The emotions heave. The arrangements are so organic they practically make your stereo perspire.
"That was the first record that finally sounded like us," Lenny says. "On 'Local' and 'Sanduleak,' we'd have songs that sounded much different, but we wouldn't record them because we thought, 'That's not how we're perceived.' We finally said, 'Let's just do what we want to do,' and that's what became 'Massacre.' "
"Our lives were falling apart," Rod says. "Everything was crumbling around us. We had that record to make, and we . . . well, we explored a bit."
In 2001, Ho-Hum emerged with "Funny Business," an aptly titled short album that came out of left field and astonished many fans. Gone were the melodies and the organics. In their place: massive synthesized and electronically manipulated sounds. Every note Lenny sings on these five tracks is run through a vocoder. It's "Kid B."
"We had gotten sick of things, and I decided to experiment beyond what we could ever reproduce live," Lenny says. "I'd been listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock. Not 'Rockit' Herbie Hancock but '70s Herbie Hancock. And I like Underworld; they use him a lot.
"Basically, that record is me trying to destroy Ho-Hum. But they all ended up playing on it, and it found its own distinct audience."
Ho-Hum survived to make "Near and Dear," a return to form but replete with electronic flourishes picked up from the "Funny Business" exercise and employed with the band's usual care and subtlety.
"It's a record with some timely themes, I think," Rod says. "But then, what I read into the songs is one thing, then I'll read an interview with my brother and find out the song's not at all what I thought it was about. 'Land Ho!,' for instance, I thought was about the environment and ecology, and it turns out Lenny says it's a break-up song. That tribute CD is really helping me figure out our own songs. I heard somebody's version of 'I Love You Like I Love Me' (from 'Massacre') the other day and finally understood the words. Lenny and I have argued about that before. I say, 'You could be praising Hitler or something, and I wanna know what you're saying.'
"He's all right, though. He's just Michael Stipe-ing the words. The magic's in the mystery, anyway."
with Sarah Wagner & the Pop Adelphics
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Unit D, 1238 W. 41st St.
Admission: $3 suggested donation at the door
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If it weren't for all that great Aimee Mann music scoring the drawn-out angst of "Magnolia," the director should have used a song by the Frogs for the film's biblical climax.
It wouldn't have been the first time you've unwittingly listened to the band.
Milwaukee's flipped-out Frogs have been a crucial underpinning of most of the alt-rock you've grown to adore during the last decade and a half.
Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder habitually dropped their name in interviews. Both of their bands played the Frogs' wacky gay-power-folk debut "It's Only Right and Natural" on the PA before concerts. Pearl Jam even covered some Frogs songs live and shared a single with them ("Immortality" in '94).
Juliana Hatfield's Blake Babies named an EP after a song on the Frogs' debut ("Rosy Jack World"). The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan and James Iha regularly joined the Frogs onstage. Kelly Deal played bass for them. Beck sampled the Frogs in his hit single "Where It's At."
We could go on. And on.
Suffice to say: the examples above are artists who have kinky sides to them, and that's the side of everyone that the Frogs embrace.
"Kinky? Kinky? Can you even be kinky anymore?" asked Dennis Flemion, the more frenetic and breathless half of the duo with brother Jimmy. "The culture's gotten so scattered, so numbed, nobody even feels kinky anymore."
This from a band whose debut album is loaded with stark, naked, pro-gay anthems — written by two brothers who probably are not gay themselves. Flemion would not answer "the $64,000 question" during this week's interview.
But on all subjects, the Frogs are, er, unconventional.
Some sample song titles (at least ones that can be printed in a general newspaper): "(Thank God I Died In) The Car Crash," "I Don't Care If You Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)," "Raped," "I'm Sad the Goat Just Died Today" and "Which One of You gave My Daughter the Dope?"
They also perform wearing some crazy costumes. First, it was giant bat wings. Then, not surprisingly, frog outfits with protruding stuffed green arms. Lately, it's bunny suits.
That's not to imply that the band is all about humor and weirdness — they have some great straight material, too, so to speak, especially on the newest CD, "Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise" — but it's the wacky stuff that's gotten them attention.
Flemion, however, assured us that the wildly eclectic and bizarre music — connect the dots from Zappa to Captain Beefheart to the Frogs (and, perhaps, fellow Milwaukeeans the Violent Femmes) to Ween — is not recorded and released simply for the sake of using controversy to gain attention.
"No, no. That would be the easiest and cheapest trick in the book. 'Oh, let's see how controversial we can be!' What would be the point? Do you think Alice Cooper did that?" Flemion said.
"I don't necessarily have to be the thing I create."
And therein lies the heart of the Frogs' oddball genius. They truly deserve the label "art-rock," because they approach rock music as artists — using the medium to explore their human potential for all states of thought and feeling. The things they sing about might not describe who they are, but those things came from within them.
It's a heady concept, one jazz players might understand better than others. It springs from the practice of improvisation. The Flemion brothers often — and sometimes on stage — practice making up songs on the spot. The band's album "My Daughter the Broad" is a compilation of these improvs, and the results are alternately right-on and far-out.
"The songs we make up are often quite controversial and inflammatory," Flemion said. "I could say I'm putting a mirror out there, but that's (nonsense) really, because everybody writes about themselves. Whatever you're writing, it's coming out of you.
"Just last night, I finally figured out the meaning of a song I wrote in '87. It's so twisted, you would never understand it, but I realized in a flash, 'Oh my God, that's what I was writing about.' It's something very sad that I made funny, but it came from me. It ultimately always does.
"You have to let yourself get out of the way for things to come through, too. That stuff I made up was just me opening my mind and letting stuff fly out of me. That's what we do. We try to open ourselves up that way. The stuff that comes out, well, we can't be afraid of it."
The fact that his subconscious ditties shock the conservative and sometimes even the liberal is no surprise to Flemion. Nor is it a threat.
"We have to do that as human beings, don't we?" he said. "There's no sense or irreverence in the culture anymore. When I grew up in the '60s, that's the way it was, that's the way you thought. But look at us now. Aren't you bored with what's out there?"
Unfortunately, commercialism sells only the material that's inoffensive to focus groups. That's made the Frogs infrequent residents of record store shelves — this despite the duo's piles and piles of songs. They're the They Might Be Giants of the counterculture.
"But our records are always delayed," Flemion said. " 'Right Natural' was finished in '87 but didn't come out until '89. 'Racially Yours' finished in '92 and just came out a couple of years ago.
"The latest one ('Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise') was done in '97 and came out last year. The only ones that came out on time were the compilations, and most of that was dated material, anyway."
The duo has two new records currently in the works. One of them is — ahem — a spiritual album.
"Well, I mean, it's us doing spiritual stuff. One song is called 'Satan,' and it sounds like 'Uncle Ernie' from 'Tommy.' There's a serious one called 'Jesus Is the Answer,' and then there's 'Jesus Is My Buddy' and 'Pact With the Devil Blues.'
"It's stuff that actually is fairly universal in theme so that people might even embrace it. Color me surprised."
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Last time I saw David Garza, he brought me to my knees.
Quite literally — a park in Austin, a year and a half
ago, and Garza strutted onto the outdoor stage under the
black clouds of a brewing storm and dared the lightning
bolts to fly by the bald audacity of his guitar playing.
All he had at his disposal was his clipped, cat-like voice
and a revved-up Rickenbacker guitar, but no plaintive
singer-songwriter was he. All by himself he rocked harder
than every lineup of Starship on a single stage, yelping
and growling and playing that guitar so hard and fast and
with such conviction and clarity, well, I actually worried
he was hurting himself.
But he brought all the layered, looped tracks from his
Atlantic debut album to life with the sweat of his brow
instead of the flick of a switch, and by the time he
finished "Discoball World" I was on my knees at the edge of
the stage, clawing at my face and bellowing. Fortunately, I
was not alone.
So if you're headed down the 'pike this weekend to catch
matchbox 20 (whatever) and Train (snore), don't linger in
those overpriced Bricktown restaurants too long and miss
the opening act, 'cause it's David Garza (that's dah-VEED
to you, gringo) and that same, lone guitar, and I guarantee
he'll justify the ticket price and the gas money in 30
"Yeah, that's what I'm doing on this matchbox 20 tour,
and it's real fun," Garza said in an interview last week
from a tour stop in El Paso, Texas. "I'm coming off a string
of shows in clubs, solo stuff, you know, but you don't get
to bring out the loud amps in these small clubs. On those
outdoor stages and in those arenas, I can crank it up."
He says this with an obvious timbre of relish, even
though Garza — Billboard magazine compared him to
"trailblazers such as Prince, David Bowie and Prince" — is as
gut-wrenching with a slow hand as he is when he's smokin'.
His particular oomph makes him a bit of an anomaly in the
laid-back, folkie Austin, Texas, music scene from which
he's been based since landing at the University of Texas on
a classical guitar scholarship.
After dabbling in cover bands — "playing Billy Idol and
INXS and Big Audio Dynamite for dances" — Garza thrust a band
called Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom into the scene where the
likes of Asleep at the Wheel shuffle along as politely as
possible. Record label execs showed up at his shows like
lawyers in an emergency room — so fast that Garza rebuffed a
few offers until he felt his songs were ready for the big
"I guess it happened somewhat fast back then. I got my
start playing solo guitar at an Italian restaurant. I was
the guy who wandered from table to table, and I had to hold
my own with the single instrument," Garza said. "Now that I
get to travel a little farther and wider, I try to push it
a little. So much music today is so dense and thick, with a
lot of beats and loops and programs and samples. For me
personally, the most revolutionary thing I can do is play
unaccompanied, loud electric guitar."
His affection for stripped-down r-a-w-k rock only hints
at the irony of his latest album title, "Overdub," his second
release for Lava-Atlantic Records. A chunkier, rougher
record than the previous two — "This Euphoria," his dreamy
debut for Atlantic, and "Kingdom Come and Go," a solo
acoustic record on Garza's own Wide Open Records label --
"Overdub" symbolizes more personal philosophy than studio
"A lot of what I've done over the last 10 years is
overdub things. You know, there's a redemptive idea in
overdubbing. Spiritually, lyrically — as I'm growing older I
start looking at how to fix things in my life, similar to
the recording process. It's not as clean in real life. You
don't get to fix your mistakes by patching in an overdub,"
"This album sounds rougher basically because I got to
produce it. I had the time and the budget, and I got to
work with bassist Doug Wimbish (Tackhead, Sugarhill Gang)
and drummer Will Calhoun (Living Colour). When those guys
step, the earth shakes. That sound is the crumbling of
buildings as they're ringing their terror in the tracks. We
got a bold, old rock sound — just three humans playing in a
"It's different from the way most albums are
made, and have been made for since '92 or '93 — the whole
building of tracks, not necessarily the performance of a
song. It starts with that perfect time loop, over which the
drummer plays some funky drums. Then the bass player stops
playing Nintendo and puts in his line. Then you call the
guitar player on his cell phone and tell him to come in do
his guitar parts. Then you wait for your special guest
stars to come in from the limo. The way this was done was
we three guys shook hands and started playing rock 'n'
roll. `Bloodsuckers' was the first thing we played
together, and I said, `Oh yeah, this is going to work.' "
There were a few guest stars in this process, though --
Craig Ross, a fellow Austin rocker who contributes much of
the six-string stomp heard on his phenomenal 1996 release
"Dead Spy Report" and everybody's favorite lovelorn indie
waif, Juliana Hatfield, whose bright voice adds to the lilt
of "Keep on Crying."
For now, though, Garza's on the road by himself,
standing on the shoulders of giants even though his sound
is just as tall.
"Like I said, I can turn it up on this tour," he said, "and
man, if I can make your ears bleed, I'll go for it."
Matchbox 20, Train and Garza play at 7 p.m. Wednesday
(Sept 12) at the Myriad Convention Center in Oklahoma City.
Call (405) 297-3300 for information and tickets, or buy
tickets online at www.tickets.com.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Negativland is a band of self-described "culture jammers"
whose musical collage art has landed them in hot water
during the last decade.
The band's music is a process of cutting up, splicing
together and warping various sounds and recordings, netting
the flotsam and jetsam of our media culture and fusing it
back together in striking, poignant and sometimes grotesque
new shapes — and often, new statements. It's just like those
art-school collages, only in aural, not visual, art.
It's a less-traveled road which has made all the
difference for Negativland.
Two decades and countless lawsuits into its career,
Negativland is touring for the first time in seven years.
The True/False Tour brings the band's culture blending into
a live and ultimately more bracing setting. The multi-media
show incorporates musical instruments and countless sound
devices, as well as eight film projectors and three slide
"It took us two years to develop this show because we
wanted to be able to do it right and to create something
that very few people have experienced before," said Mark
Hosler, a charter Negativland member. "About 85 percent of
the show, too, is all original material that nobody has
heard before. We actually even collage our own material
from our own records."
Indeed, by 1986 — when a group showed up named Pop Will
Eat Itself — Negativland already had established the recipe
for that meal. Raiding the sonic junkyards of suburban
culture — television, telephones, other people's records --
and juicing up the sounds with occasional keyboards and
percussion, Negativland began in 1980 making records that
were disjointed aural sculptures.
The core members of Negativland met at an after-school
job: conducting telephone surveys about people's favorite
TV shows. Discovering a shared fascination for tinkering
with noises, they followed a friend's advice and assembled
their first collages into a self-titled album.
"The covers were all hand-made, not because that's what
we wanted to do but because we didn't know how you got
things printed, how you turned a piece of artwork into
printed pieces of cardboard," Hosler said. "So I spent my
senior semester of art class making the covers by hand,
using old wallpaper books and such. The covers, basically,
were collages, too."
In the visual arts, this appropriation rarely raises any
concerns, but in music — particularly since the advent of
hip-hop and sampling — the word "appropriation" attracts
lawyers like blood attracts sharks. Negativland has
received more than its share of mail with "Attorneys at Law"
in the return address, starting with 1989's "Helter Stupid"
album, the cover of which featured a photo of convicted
Minnesota mass murderer David Broom. The album was a
disturbing masterpiece on media manipulation.
The most famous run-in with the law, though, occurred a
couple of years later when Negativland picked on someone
much bigger. The band released a single called "U2," which
made fun of Bono's band by picking out the melody of "I
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on kazoos and
included tapes of a profanity-laced studio tantrum by
swell-guy radio star Casey Kasem. The resulting legal
battle with U2 galvanized the band as crusaders for
redefining the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. The
battle and the band's resulting theories are chronicled in
a book, "Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral
2," and the group's web site is now a clearinghouse for
discussion of the limits of sampling and collage uses of
other musicians' work — the difference between piracy and
"the transformative re-use of material from multiple sources
to create new, original works . . . Collage is not theft."
"In the visual arts, collage is making one-of-a-kind
pieces, and it's under the label of fine art. Music,
though, is mass produced. It's pop culture. The monied
interests are more involved and they make it into a whole
new ball game," Hosler said. "Nobody cared when we were doing
this back in the '80s. Only with hip-hop becoming a bigger
part of music did things change.
"The mentality has changed. We saw it happen with the
`U2' single, and now it's happening with computers and the
Internet. Napster is a front-page story on USA Today, and
it's all about the issues we started dealing with in '90
and '91. Once it becomes digital, the concept of theft and
property is turned on its head. The original and the copy
are the same. And the way the music industry makes money is
by having tight control over the distribution, so once that
becomes endangered, they freak out. These threats against
Napster are the terrified screams of a dying industry that
wants to stop the future from happening."
Hosler, in fact, sees virtually all art as collage art.
In other words, every new idea is simply the recombination
of other, old ideas into a new form.
"That's the natural creative impulse — it's
transformational more than purely creative, as in starting
from nothing," he said. "We take chunks of actual things and
recombine them. It's not outright counterfeit when you
create something new. But now these businesses want to stop
that, stop people from being creative. Time-Warner and all
that — they want total control of everything and they want
us to sit back and be passive consumers. If you follow that
logic all the way through, it's the death of culture. It's
mean-spirited, and it's just dumb."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Side, 6906 S. Lewis Ave.
Tickets: $15 at the door
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The Norman club was a closet, anyway. The throng of
collegiates, practically perspiring beer, willingly
wriggled inch-by-inch through the door, compressing into
the raunchy space and straining to see, to be seen, to hear
what was going on. The typically laid-back Norman music
fans were desperate, wild-eyed, clawing over each other's
backs to see a band. A local band, no less.
It was 1992, and the hometown Flaming Lips had recently
signed to a major label, Warner Bros., and, to everyone's
great relief, they hadn't sold out or lost their edge. In
fact, they'd gotten tighter. Their Warner Bros. debut, "Hit
to Death in the Future Head," focused and even magnified the
band's off-kilter squeak-rock, its purposeful and
orchestrated distortion, its kaleidoscopic lyrical visions.
A bonus track even featured 29 minutes of stereo static.
It was a Lips experience: enthralling, frightening,
daring in its wizardry and sheer mass. When Steven Drozd's
drums rolled and crashed on "Hold Your Head," it seemed that
the world would end in that crummy little dive.
The softest bullet ever shot
Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips' de facto leader and chief
sonic architect, finally got through on his cell phone last
week. His voice was strained through the pixelized stops
and starts of cross-continental cellular transmission. Somehow, it was an
appropriate way to hear him.
"We drove from Minneapolis to Seattle yesterday," he said.
"I had some other interviews to do, and the cell phones
wouldn't even work all the way across the Dakotas and
Montana. I thought technology had invaded everywhere."
The Lips are touring in support of their latest album,
"The Soft Bulletin." It's their ninth full-length album, and
it's the most fully realized, all-encompassing, masterful
composition of the Oklahoma City-based band's 15-year
career. The fumbling experiments in sound the Lips have
conducted in the past three years pay off in breathtaking,
sweeping rushes of sound — non-musical noises made not only
musical but harmonious, delicate, emotional and enormous.
Instead of the static guitars and loose-limbed rumble
that supported the grade-A whimsy of the Lips' fluke 1993
hit, "She Don't Use Jelly," the songs on "The Soft Bulletin"
strive for other sounds — plunky pianos, perky piccolos,
nebulous noises. It's as if Coyne & Co. have mastered in
music what poets have been striving for in print for
centuries: the communication of the idea by invoking as
many of the senses as possible. In modern music, though,
Coyne said the range for that expression is quite narrow.
"The music wants to limit itself," he said, crackling
through the cellular relay towers. "Rock bands even limit
themselves, saying, 'We'll play guitars and drums and
that's all.' I've fallen into that myself in the past, and
I kick myself. I use the analogy of painting. It's like a
painter saying, 'I only use red and gray.' That's kind of
limiting. Don't you want to use anything available to
express your idea?"
Gentlemen . . . press play
Car Radio Orchestra was a Coyne experiment conducted in
a parking garage during the 1997 South by Southwest music
conference in Austin, Texas.
Up to 30 volunteered cars, including Coyne's, were led
up to the fifth floor of the garage and arranged in a
certain pattern. The drivers were instructed to open all
doors and windows and crank their stereos up as loud as
possible without distorting. They were each given a
numbered cassette, and when Coyne shouted "Go!" through his
megaphone, they all pressed play.
The first piece was titled "That's the Crotch Calling the
Devil Black," a swirl of white noise and high-pitched sounds
— different parts coming from different cars — culminating in
the breathy gasps and shouts of a lengthy female orgasm. A
second composition followed, full of pounding drums that
reverberated endlessly off the concrete ceilings and floors
like the bouncing ball on a screen saver.
Swelling synthesized music and crashing cymbals
crescendoed into manic madness, and three cars blew fuses.
Setting his sights on sound
Later that year, the Flaming Lips released "Zaireeka," a
set of four CDs designed to be played simultaneously — the
fruits of the Car Radio Orchestra trials. Fans around the
country set up four CD players around their living rooms to
indulge in this new experience in sound.
These projects were not simply the ravings of a madman
with a big budget. (Major record labels — which are giant,
profit-driven corporations — rarely release the whims of a
mischievous employee.) Coyne said he was trying to funnel
his boundless ideas into the medium in which he and he band
"To be merely imaginative isn't the cure we're looking
for," Coyne said last week, his voice distorting now like
the aural equivalent of a television screen moire. "I think
of a million ideas, but I have to have a reason as to why
this idea applies now instead of later. The space we
occupied with other bands eight or nine years ago — the
distortion, effects, no boundaries — that's been absorbed in
the mainstream culture."
"The Soft Bulletin" features numerous environmental sounds
that have been squeezed, pitched and distorted into musical
elements. Coyne was personally taken with the sound his
freezer door made when opening and closing — "this great thud
and sucking sound, familiar to anyone who's spent a
lifetime grabbing popsicles." So he recorded it and used it
as a rhythmic element.
"You can make music out of these!" he said, gleefully.
"We're building sounds out of insects and refrigerators and
using them in a sophisticated musical way. Brian Wilson
said, `I just wasn't made for these times.' I say the
opposite: these times were made for me."
Is it live?
This meticulous crafting of sounds in a recording studio
is surely innovative; this, after all, is a rock band. Rock
bands tour, play concerts. How will we hear these fantastic
noises when the Flaming Lips are onstage?
Enter the backup tape. For the current series of
concerts, the Lips are playing to a pre-recorded tape of
backing tracks and some rhythms. This is not karaoke,
though; unlike the 'N Syncs and Britney Spearses, the Lips
use the backing tracks for our benefit, not their own.
In fact, the current live show is another experiment of
Coyne's: the headphone concert. Upon entering the hall,
most concertgoers will be given a portable radio and a pair
of in-the-ear headphones. Using an FM transmitter, the band
broadcasts the backing track inside the hall, so listeners
can hear what's going in the room as well as enjoying the
more detailed mix and stereo spread through the
"Last Thanksgiving, (our manager) Scott Booker and I were
sitting around thinking about what we were going to do to
present this live," Coyne said. "We don't have Ronald Jones
(a former Lips member) who was a master at rebuilding
things, but even for him this would have been too much. So
I finally sat down and said, 'I know what we're going to
do. We'll play to a backup tape.' "
Some practice runs were scheduled at the Boar's Head
club in Oklahoma City, but Coyne said he didn't like the
way the live music sounded with the tape. He started trying
to think out of the box — how could the band present live
sound in some other way than sending their amplifier
signals through a bunch of speakers? The idea for
headphones came to him at breakfast the next day.
"It's worked, and it's something people really do like,"
he said. "The sort of thing we present, it just gives the
songs more impact. There are so many things missing when
you're standing a few feet from the stage hearing 120
decibels. We're one band you have to hear clearly to get
the full range of the experience."
Music Against Brain Degeneration Tour Featuring the
Flaming Lips with Robyn Hitchcock, Sebadoh and Sonic
Boom's E.A.R. When 7 p.m. Friday Where Will
Rogers Theater, near 44th Street and Western Avenue in
Oklahoma City Tickets $16; in Tulsa from Mohawk Music,
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Loni Anderson has discovered the fountain of youth. It's
a delicate mixture of equal parts reruns and fan mail.
" 'WKRP' has been running somewhere in the world since it
went off the air in 1982, and I still get fan mail from all
over the world. I'm getting tons from Germany right now, so
it must be on over there. Some people don't realize how old
the show is, how long ago it went off the air. Little kids
write to me saying, 'I know you're older — you must be 20 --
but will you wait for me?,' " Anderson said in an interview
"I love that kind of fan mail."
The TV show that made Anderson a star, "WKRP in
Cincinnati," begins its run on Nick at Nite this week. The
network launches the reruns with a five-day, 40-episode
marathon beginning Monday night, unofficially enshrining
the show as a classic in Nick at Nite's virtual on-air
television hall of fame.
The marathon will run each night this week from 8 p.m.
to midnight on Tulsa cable channel 33 and will be hosted by
Anderson, who played clever receptionist Jennifer Marlowe,
and her "WKRP" co-star, Howard Hesseman, who played the
incorrigible DJ Dr. Johnny Fever. Anderson said she's
enjoyed seeing the show brought back into the limelight,
though the series is no stranger to rerun ratings routs.
The show ran for four seasons, '78-'82, and actually became
more popular in syndication. Executives at CBS realized the
mistake of canceling the show when reruns of "WKRP" topped
Monday Night Football a year later.
"I'd forgotten a lot of it — and how funny it was,"
Anderson said. "I laughed out loud, which to me is the true
test of a comedy."
"WKRP" was a smart sitcom set in a struggling Cincinnati
radio station, which makes the abrupt format shift from
elevator music to Top 40 rock 'n' roll. Though the music
the on-air DJs are spinning is now called "classic" rock,
Anderson said there's plenty for new viewers — like the
young'uns writing her fan mail — to enjoy. "It's not
dated at all," she said. "That's the interesting thing about
the show. Hugh (Wilson, the show's creator) was so into
comedy coming out of character and story rather than a
referral joke to what's going on in the world at the time.
The comedy comes out of the story and never gets old."
Anderson almost turned down the role of Jennifer. She
had come to Hollywood from her native Minnesota at the
urging of actor Pat O'Brien (who later played one of
Jennifer's elderly beaus in the episode "Jennifer and the
Will," airing Friday night). At the time, she was married to
Ross Bickell, who was called back several times for the
role of WKRP programming director Andy Travis.
"He had the script with him, and I kept getting calls to
go in for the part of Jennifer. But I didn't want it. I
thought the part was window dressing," Anderson said. "It was
not the way I wanted to go, especially since I had just
decided to go blonde. Finally, my agent said, 'There's only
so many times you can tell MTM (Mary Tyler Moore's
production company) you're not interested, so I went in to
"I was doing an episode of 'Three's Company' at the time
('Coffee, Tea or Jack?'), so they told me to come in on
Saturday. I got out my soapbox to tell them how much I
didn't like this character. I did my speech, and Grant
Tinker asked me, 'How would you do it then?' I said I think
she should be sarcastic and atypical. He said, 'So do it
that way.' But it wasn't written that way, and I cried all
the way home thinking I was terrible.
"On Monday they offered me the part. Hugh said, 'I
promise, if this pilot sells, you'll change.' And he kept
his word. You can see the change from 'Pilot Part I' to
'Pilot Part II.' In the first part, I'm sticking my chest
in Andy's face and calling Carlson (station manager, played
by Gordon Jump) a jerk. Later, Carlson became my baby, and
Jennifer became a real person."
That was one of many battles Anderson would have to
fight in Hollywood over the stereotype of the dumb blonde --
ironic since Anderson was a natural brunette until moving
"Before you even open your mouth, there's a look that
happens. I didn't have to deal with that as a brunette, and
it was very new. I made sure to do talk shows so people
would see more than just the outside of me," Anderson said.
Not that Anderson couldn't play a dumb blonde quite
well. In the episode "The Consultant" (airing Friday night),
the staff of WKRP reverses roles to foil a radio consultant
with ulterior motives. Jennifer pretends she's the classic
"I was so intent on not letting anyone know I could do a
dumb blonde voice. I used it a lot when I was a brunette,
but it was never a problem. After I went blonde, I didn't
do it anymore. But I was sitting on the set one day, and
someone made a comment, and I did the voice. Hugh said,
'Did that come from you?' I said yes, and he said, 'We have
to do a show where you can use that,' " Anderson said.
Anderson has played a variety of characters since "WKRP"
went to static, most recently being the mother to the
brothers in "Night at the Roxbury" and mother to Pamela
Anderson in UPN's "V.I.P." Still, she remembers that
first TV role most fondly.
"We were such a family," she said of her "WKRP" co-stars. "We
had all worked, but none of us had had much celebrity
status before that, so it was a beginning, and beginnings
are always spectacular. You always remember your first
kiss, to have this be such a wonderful experience — well, we
were very lucky."
After this week's introductory marathon, all 90 episodes
of "WKRP in Cincinnati" will air in sequence at 11 p.m. on
Nick at Nite.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
For those who found Seinfeld's take on the existential
nothingness a bit too tony and smug (they wound up in jail --
how poetically just), MTV offers "The Sifl and Olly Show." A
late-night offering since its debut in July, "The Sifl and
Olly Show" hit prime-time last week. It now airs each
weekday evening at 6:30 p.m. on MTV, cable Channel 42.
(Fellow night-owls, rest easy — it repeats at midnight.)
Like "Seinfeld," this show is about absolutely nothing.
Sifl and Olly stand at a microphone and chat about whatever
bizarre things are running through their stoned little
minds — arguing about Cars songs, discussing the aesthetic
properties of waffles, breaking into song about Claire
Daines. It's not as much a retooling of "Beavis and Butthead"
as it is a lo-fi knock-off inspired by "Fernwood Tonight."
Both hosts have the same command of the loopy, making a
seemingly safe little chat show into something wholly bent
and bizarre. Their banter and double-take exchanges make
for hilarious TV.
It's the songs that make or break each episode, too.
It's on MTV because Sifl and Olly come from a genuine rock
'n' roll perspective. Even though they can't really carry a
tune, their spark and spunk wins every time.
Not bad for a couple of sock puppets.
Yep, Sifl and Olly are sock puppets. It's come to this.
The move to prime time doesn't mean new episodes have
been added — those come in January — but the first-season
rotation lasts a while and is full of yuks.
For those willing to surrender a bit of intelligence for
half an hour (think about the other TV programs you watch
before answering that), here's a quick guide to watching
"The Sifl and Olly Show":
Settle in. Whether watching the prime time or late-night
broadcast, it's a good time for a snack. Especially if you
have the munchies, in which case you're more likely to dig
Don't sing along to the theme song. As you'll see in one
show, the singing of the show's repetitive theme attracts
vicious bear attacks.
Wagering. Odds that Chester actually will introduce Sifl
and Olly are about 5-3 against. Odds he'll simply walk off
when given his cue are about 50-50.
Who's who. Sifl is on the left, the gray one. He's
fairly cool and laid-back when not lying about his
relationship with MTV News anchor Serena Altschul. He
provides a fitting contrast to Olly, on the right, who's a
bit excitable, particularly when hawking questionable
Polite conversation. After being introduced — or not --
Sifl and Olly will chat a bit, welcoming folks to the show.
There will be another few moments like this later, as if
the camera catches them having a rather bizarre personal
conversation. Whether you figure out what exactly they're
talking about is irrelevant.
Backdrops. Sifl and Olly are "standing" in front of a blue
screen, so various images and scenes are sometime projected
behind them. Be prepared for anything, from twirling skulls
to the surface of a waffle slowly oozing with syrup.
Interview time. Each show features two interviews with
some other sock puppet character. This is why they can call
their show a "talk show." Each interview is prefaced by a
graphic with a spinning, computer-generated skeleton which,
as one fan web site observed, may "symbolize the serious,
in-depth questions Sifl and Olly will ask that get to the
deep inner-workings of the guest."
Not quite. If the interview doesn't collapse entirely
due to a poorly chosen subject or our hosts' inept
interviewing skills, it inevitably backfires on them. Past
guests have included an orgasm (with his runt pal, G-Spot),
an atom on the comb of Elvis Presley, a woman named Sex
Girl, a psychedelic mushroom, the Grim Reaper ("I'm from
Montreal. I'm a French-Canadian") and the planet Mars.
Rock Facts. Each show is peppered with trivia questions
about rock stars. They're all bogus, though they provide
another opportunity for wagering: odds that a Rock Fact
will have something to do with Bjork are about 3-1.
"Calls From the Public." Sifl and Olly take calls from
their fellow sock-puppet public. Somehow, simply by yelling
into the phone, other sock puppet characters can be heard
AND seen by Sifl and Olly. Thus, we get to meet many
amusing locals, from a scary S/M duo threatening to beat up
Sifl to someone trying to sell our hosts some legless dogs.
Their landlord frequently calls to complain, as well; it
seems the Sifl and Olly home is amok with monkeys and water
Don't buy anything. Sifl and Olly are spokes-socks for
the Precious Roy Home Shopping Network, an enterprise in
dire need of investigation. Olly becomes particularly
exasperated when pitching products — such as scarehookers
(fake pimps to keep hookers away), Insta-Jerky (a chemical
that turns anything into edible jerky) and pirate beavers
(specially raised rodents trained to attack wooden legs of
threatening pirates) — and he sometimes must be sedated.
Performance. Art? Occasionally during a show and always
at the end, Sifl and Olly sing a song. Sometimes it's a
cover (their on-the-road version of the Cars' "Just What I
Needed" is priceless, as is their adorably spooky take on
"Don't Fear the Reaper"), more often it's an original tune
about something trivial and strange — how we deal with
stress, Claire Danes, marrying a vegetable, Claire Danes,
hiding in a cabinet or Claire Danes. The music is
sub-karaoke and neither of them can sing, but if you've
held out this long you've already been won over by their
And what exactly is Chester? You're right, he's not a
sock puppet. He is a mold turned inside out. In particular,
he is a mold from which small, plastic Buddha statues are
Watch in good spirits and remember — that whirring noise
you hear is Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
There's a big underground rock show in town Friday
night, but Flick is not on the bill. It's probably just as
well, because these kids — now with their major-label debut
on shelves — won't be underground for very long.
They'll be playing at the Fur Shop on Friday night, the
band's first Tulsa appearance despite living just up the
turnpike in Stockton, Mo.
That's near Springfield. Don't worry, you're not missing
much, according to the band. It's a
blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of town, and that's exactly
the environment in which Flick enjoys creating its slow,
serious, patient rock rhapsodies.
"It's a town of about 1,500 people. There's not a lot
going on," said Flick guitarist Oran Thornton of his
hometown during an interview this week. "Trevor and I work
better writing-wise being in someplace really quiet instead
of someplace fast-paced like New York or L.A. It's nice to
work in the middle of the night and walk outside to dead
silence, stars and crickets rather than some busy street."
Giving polish to the American-dream side of the music
business, Flick has reached the big time without straying
too far from its southern Missouri hamlet. Before the four
members — Oran, his lead singer brother Trevor, bassist Eve
Hill and drummer Adam McGrath — had graduated high school,
they had major-label scouts finding their way to Stockton
to hear them play. The band landed a few opening slots for
artists like Duncan Sheik, most of whom went back to their
record companies raving about "the kids in Missouri."
A deal with Columbia Records was a quick rescue from a
struggle to find place to play and an audience to fill it
in a rural area not known as a magnet for modern rock.
"Around here, it's pretty much all country music,"
Thornton said. "I think there are a few bars outside of
town. If they even have live music, it's probably some
country band that doesn't even play good country like Hank
Williams — it's that awful, hip new country."
With his distaste for country's current regime tucked
snugly under his cap, Oran and his bandmates ironically
recorded the bulk of their Columbia debut, "The Perfect
Kellulight," in a studio outside of Nashville.
Nashville turned out to be the perfect place to hone and
record the album — again because of the Thornton brothers'
desire to be away from any hustle and bustle.
"Down in Nashville, we were away from label pressures and
opinions of too many other people," Oran said. "It's
frustrating when too many people get around you while
you're trying to complete a thought. They try to put in
their input when you haven't really gotten your whole
thought out. We were able to finish our thoughts down
there, so the record came out more like we'd envisioned
Not that the members of Flick harbor any resentment
toward Columbia, a major among major labels. The company
has taken its time with Flick. Instead of snatching up the
band of youngsters, flinging an album onto the shelves and
shoving them out on the road, Columbia has given the band
the time and resources to develop, releasing an EP early on
and giving them space to shape the album.
"Making that EP was the learning experience," Oran said.
"At the time, we weren't completely happy with what was
happening. If we didn't go through that process, we
wouldn't have ever learned for sure what we wanted and what
we didn't want. You have to figure that out early on or
else other people will make you into what they want you to
Oran is a sprightly 19 years old. His brother Trevor is
his younger brother, and the other bandmates teeter
similarly around that median age. Somehow in the '90s
(after the '80s, during which most of the chart-toppers
were retooled boomers) we've come to think this is an
awfully young age to be snatched up by the record industry.
"Back in the '60s and '70s, if someone was in a band at
17, 18 or 19, that was normal," he said. "That's what most
rock bands were — young guys. That's why it was cool to want
to be in one. Jimmy Page was 19 when he started. Tommy
Stinson was 14 when he made the first Replacements record
"It's an advantage in some ways because you can relate to
your audience more. It's a disadvantage in others because
of the hype around it. People want to compare us to Hanson
or something, just because we're young — which is all we
have in common with Hanson."
For now, these young'uns will be touring around the
region, casually supporting "The Perfect Kellulight" until
the record is officially released to radio next month.
Then stand back and watch as they shove the Smashing
Pumpkins off the modern rock chart.
Just a prediction.
With Fanzine and the Kickbacks
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: The Fur Shop, 320 E. Third St.
Tickets: Cover charge at the door
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The only logical place to go after Tuesday night's Morrissey
concert was the Fur Shop, a downtown watering hole just blocks from
the Brady Theater and owned by several fellow Morrissey fanatics.
One of them, Mike Aston, floated through the bar wearing a dumb
grin and one of his dozens of Smiths T-shirts, boasting that he
actually touched his hero at the edge of the stage.
The stereo attempted to play Morrissey's "Kill Uncle'' album,
and the crowd just glowed. Collegiates and curmudgeons alike
maintained airy, blissful faces as they guffawed about the
particular moments of the show — "Did you hear him introduce the
band as a Tulsa band?'' "He couldn't stop touching his hair!'' and
"Look! I got a piece of a stem from the flowers he threw out!''
Complete strangers stopped at our table to discuss the concert.
These were Morrissey fans being ... gregarious. Bring on the
The show was short but stunning — and I say this not
solely because I am a lifelong fan of the former Smiths leader. I
had entered the Brady Theater with trepidation, steeling myself for
a letdown. He's so pompous and so British, he'll hate Tulsa and
make fun of us, I thought. He's pushing 40, he's been looking tired
— the publicity photos for the current album have been nothing
short of embarrassing — and he'll have lost his spark, I thought.
By mid-show, I thought, I'll be throwing back into his face his own
lyrics from a song called ""Get Off the Stage'' ("You silly old
man, you're making a fool of yourself, so get off the stage'').
But from the first song, ""Boy Racer,'' when he licked his palm and
criss-crossed his chest with it, all fears were allayed. Clearly,
the man who introduced sexual ambivalence and ambiguity to the
mainstream of popular culture maintains a surprising sex appeal.
The spark is still there, and as the show progressed it grew hotter
and hotter. The crowd, estimated at 1,800 and from throughout the
region, was putty for the next hour.
For a tour that is intended to support the new album,
"Maladjusted,'' he nearly ignored that batch of songs, performing
only the single, "Alma Matters'' (which has more much-needed umph
in concert), and the laborious street-crime dirge "Ambitious
Outsiders.'' Instead, Morrissey and his crack band tore through
material from his last three solo albums, concentrating on 1994's
"Vauxhall and I'' (seven of the 11 tracks).
And then came the Smiths songs. Having not performed the songs
of his old band in several years, the appearance of one Smiths song
— let alone two — was reason for intrigue. Perhaps Morrissey
simply missed singing some of the old standards. Perhaps the recent
royalties lawsuit against him from the Smiths rhythm section — a
case that he lost and is none too bitter about — inspired the
brief retrospective. His lone encore, "Shoplifters of the World
Unite,'' alludes to the former possibility, but the other choice,
"Paint a Vulgar Picture,'' surely indicates the latter.
This was the moment midway through the show in which Morrissey's
real passion surfaced. Until then, he had been dashing and suave,
but his much-revered noble chin had been twisted in more than a few
smirks and possibly derisive comments to the audience ("Thank you
for pretending to know any of these songs''), which screamed and
trembled with as much mania as any Morrissey audience I have
encountered. For "Paint a Vulgar Picture'' (which he introduced as
a Glen Campbell song), though, any provincialism fell aside and we
watched the Morrissey of our heady days of youth — mildly bitter,
endlessly clever, worthy of pity and simultaneously biting and flip.
"Paint a Vulgar Picture,'' from the 1987 posthumous Smiths
album "Strangeways, Here We Come,'' was the first song in which
Morrissey abandoned his lyrical ambiguity and went straight for the
jugular. Its ridicule of the entire music business, as well as the
fanatical fan adoration that feeds him, still rings alarmingly true
after 10 years — and it still backfires, turning the ridicule more
on himself than others. But if the lawsuit was indeed the catalyst
for the kind of passion he poured into this old invective Tuesday
night, perhaps he should be dragged into court before every tour.
But the substance of this show wasn't as titillating as the
style, particularly for a majority crowd that likely had never seen
him live before. (This is Morrissey's first-ever appearance in the
Sooner state, and on this tour he's strangely avoiding Texas, far
more populated with Morrissey fans.) The mere presence of the
godhead before the masses incited the usual frenzy. Beefy security
men fought a hard battle to tear away desperate young men and women
who had managed to crowd-surf onto the stage and wrap themselves
around their hero. It happens at every single Morrissey show, and
he hardly misses a note anymore. After one particularly boisterous
girl had been pried off his person, Morrissey sat down on the stage
and actually seemed to marvel at the occurrence — amazed that it
still happens, even in Tulsa, Okla.
At least he still marvels. When he takes it for granted, that's
when I start singing "Get Off the Stage'' in earnest.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Some artists touch us in the most extraordinary, unspoken ways. They craft their art almost unconsciously — making it look so easy — and while others merely reach out and titillate our glands, these rare artists reach out and massage the very muscle of our hearts. They transport us through all the barriers of politics, genres and all forms of identity to touch souls.
It is here I will claim that Paul Buchanan — leader of a Scottish pop trio you've probably never heard of, the Blue Nile — is such an artist. I will not go about this objectively. I can't; I love his work too much. For those who amuse us with complaints about biased reviews (duh), I am hereby laying my biases upon the table. Buchanan's songs are the perfect balance between the melodic and the rhythmic, the spiritual and the physical, and I adore them.
The Blue Nile has made three records in 12 years. That's 24 songs (none of them hits), an average of two a year — not exactly career momentum. After the debut record, “A Walk Across the Rooftops,'' appeared on A&M Records in 1984, fans of the album couldn't wait to hear what this band would do next. But wait they did.
It took the Blue Nile five years to deliver the follow-up, the critically acclaimed “Hats.''
A fierce legal battle to free the band from a bad contract kept fans waiting another seven years for the third disc, “Peace at Last,'' which was released last month by Warner Bros. Still, the sound on “Peace at Last'' is so immediate and accessible, it's as if the band had been there all along.
In a recent interview, Buchanan explained the band's anti-commercial pace.
“After the first record, if we'd gone right back to work like others, we'd have made the next record in due course, but we weren't ready. We were insecure and we thrashed about for a while. We finally summoned the courage to play again for anyone who was still listening,'' he said.
“I hope people don't think we're lying about in a swimming pool doing take after take after take. Nothing could be further from the truth. We got so caught up in the promoting and traveling and the one thing we overlooked was finding the time to go home at night and play the piano and let a song develop. We literally got off the plane one day and were told we'd be in the studio the next day.
“We stoically went along with that for a while, but that's like putting a flower in a dark room and screaming at it to grow instead of giving it light and water and nurturing it.''
The new record turns to the acoustic guitar to prop up Buchanan's muted, ecstatic yearnings. The first record was a haunted, delicate clamor of eerie sounds — trumpet, guitars and keyboards — and every song is an excellent example of the value of space in a composition. “Hats'' carried forth the exact same lyrical imagery and emotional approach. There is nary a live instrument on the album, but seldom has studio technology been used to such a warm and personal effect.
For “Peace at Last,'' Buchanan strived to maintain the music's sophistication and bring more live instruments into the mix. The result is a balance of all that is phenomenal about both previous albums.
“I wanted to use wooden things. I wanted it to be a warm recording. I wanted to undo some of the notions about us,'' Buchanan said. “I felt mislabeled as being intellectual or cerebral or something like that. It isn't true for us at all. I wanted these songs to stand on their roots.''
The writing off of the Blue Nile as music for intellectuals is a bit of a farce. Buchanan's manipulation of empty space instead of 24 tracks of backing vocals, strings and atmospheric synthesizers sets sometimes sets a stark mood, and starkness is not a favorite aspect of mainstream culture. His lyrics rarely venture into anything intellectual. The joy of the first album is Buchanan's soul-less tenor crying out phrases like “I am in love'' and “Yes! I love you'' with youthful thrill.
There are no manifestos on Blue Nile records, only gushing emotions fresh from the end of a humbly tailored sleeve.
“Happiness,'' the opener to “Peace at Last'' features a simple theme, “Now that I've found peace at last / tell me Jesus / will it last?'' followed by another smooth Buchanan falsetto moment of glee: “It's only love!'' By the time the choir comes in, your eyes have closed and you've already been transported to a better place.
“If someone responds in that way, it's because we have those feelings and assume others have those feelings, too,'' Buchanan said. “Our job is regarded as recreating those feelings but not attracting attention to ourselves doing so. We trusted there are people out there who would react if we did something honestly . . . There's no angle here, no ulterior motive. We're not here to get a Cadillac.
“I don't want to sound pretentious. I just think the songs are true, and if they're true, the people will recognize it.''
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.