Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (Music)

All Music Guide
Herb Alpert Web Page

Herb Alpert He was a top music act, playing a style of music that was not only inauthentic, but went against every trend in popular music of the time.  But Herb Alpert made it all work, so much so that at his height, it was not unusual to find his records in collections along with groups like the Doors and the Beatles.

Alpert played trumpet, an instrument that no longer was on the forefront of popular music at the time he was making his mark.  He probably wasn't even the greatest trumpet player of his time. It didn't matter.   He really had two things going for him:  a distinctive sound and the ability to find great, catchy songs and arrange them so that just about anyone could love them.

Alpert got involved in music in the early 50s, and started writing songs with Lou Adler, penning several top twenty hits (best known song these days was probably "Alley Oop").

But Alpert wanted to perform.  Setting up a recording studio in his garage, he started looking for a hit.  Sol Lake, a composer friend, wrote a pleasant little song called "Twinkle Star" that Alpert liked a lot, but wasn't sure how to arrange. While vacationing in Tijuana and pondering the issue, he heard a Mariachi band outside a bullring.

That was the sound he was looking for.  Renaming the song "The Lonely Bull," Alpert recorded it in Mariachi style and added sound effects.  He then pressed the record out of his own pocket and on his own label, then started playing it for local DJs, hiding the fact he was the only one on the record by naming the group "The Tijuana Brass."

It was a smash, reaching number six on the charts.  Alpert and the Tijuana Brass was in business.

And what business it was.  The album of The Lonely Bull was a further smash, with Alpert playing all the music himself (he'd play the trumpet part twice, one slightly out of synch so it sounded like there were two musicians).  After this success, Alpert hired an actual band, which allowed the group to perform at live venues. 

Whippped Cream and Other Delights Meanwhile, Alpert put out more smash hits.  His albums Volume 2 and South of the Border were big sellers, but the group really made its mark with Whipped Cream and Other Delights.  The albums iconic cover was guaranteed to catch the eye of people browsing record bins.  It also inspired many parodies and tributes.


Alpert wasn't done.  He continued to put out number one albums all through the 60s with music that was peppy and tuneful.  He even had a top ten single by singing* the Bachrach-David "This Guy's in Love With You."  Some of my favorites include "The Lonely Bull," "Tijuana Taxi," "Spanish Flea," "Casino Royale."  All the Tijuana Brass songs were catchy and fun to listen to.  Alpert got away from the Mexican shtick as time went on, but the group remained popular into the 70s.**

Nowadays, it's rare to hear about the Tijuana Brass.  They don't fit into the classic rock format, and the interest in pop instrumentals of the era is limited.  They are probably the biggest chart act of the sixties not to get regular airplay these days.

Alpert continued to play for many years, of course, and had no problem finding a record company.  You see, that little record company Alpert founded to market "The Lonely Bull" just kept going. Named after Alpert and his partner Jerry Moss, A&M Records was one of the most successful labels in the rock era.  And it all started with a fake Mariachi sound recorded in a garage.


*Alpert's voice was not a great one, and he really never planned on having the record released; it was something of a gift to his wife. But there was such a demand for it that the finally agreed.

**Most people today are familiar with his music through reruns of The Dating Game, which used Tijuana Brass music as its background music for the show.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cadillac Records

Cadillac Records (2008)
Written and Directed by
Darnell Martin
Starring Adrian Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, Beyonce Knowles, Geneva Wade.
IMDB Entry

I love the blues. I was first introduced to it in college, probably by a roommate who loved the Allman Brothers.*  I started finding other acts (Buddy Guy and Junior Wells played locally, and I loved it) and soon became a major fan.

And if you're  a fan of the blues, it's essential that you see Cadillac Records.

The movie is the story of Murray Chess of Chess Records, a company instrumental in popularizing the blues and making it one of the roots of rock.

Chess (Adrian Brody) is a nightclub owner who want to make records.  He quickly signs Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), who starts making blues hits one after the other.  Chess signs the troubled Little Walter (Columbus Short) and soon hired Willie Dixon (Cedric) to play bass and write the songs. The prickly Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) soon joins, but Chess gets its greatest success by signing a country singer named Chuck Berry (Mos Def), which creates a crossover sensation.  Later, when Berry goes to jail, Etta James (Beyonce) replaces him as Chess's big act.

These names should be more familiar to everyone; they are all in the Blues Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (deservedly so), and their success was due to the fact that Murray Chess was on the lookout for new talent, regardless of race.

The story is pretty much the story of the company under Chess. There's actually not much of a narrative arc, just incidents showing the music being created.  Most are very nicely done.  One of my favorites is this group of grubby English musicians showing up at the studio and immediately recognizing Muddy Waters.  "We named our group after one of your songs," they say.  "Which one?" asks Muddy.  The answer, "Rolling Stone."

There also an indication that Chess, much as he loved the music, was a businessman:  the movie title comes from the fact that he gave his top artists Cadillacs -- taking the money from their royalties, though.

I got the impression that the movie takes some liberties with the actual stories, but that doesn't matter.  It's worthwhile just to show how the roots of rock got started.

The movie got good reviews, but did only s0-so in the box office.  The soundtrack did well, probably on Beyonce's name (though she does a good job as Etta), and there was a small controversy when the real Etta (the only one of the people involved who is still alive right now**) complained about Beyonce appropriating her song. 

If you're interested in the roots of rock, and have a liking for the blues, this is a film to see.


* I actually had already seen them in concert twice, but they made little impression on me.  But my roommate kept playing their music, including The Allman Brothers Live at Ludlow's Garage (which wasn't released until twenty years later, but he had worked there and had the tape).

**Other than Hubert Sumlin, who shows up in one scene as Howlin' Wolf's guitarist.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


S.O.B. (1981)
Directed by
Blake Edwards
Written by Blake Edwards
Starring Richard Mulligan, Julie Andrews, Robert Preston, William Holden, Larry Hagman, Marissa Berenson, Loretta Swit, Robert Vaughn, Shelly Winters.
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a movie become famous for things that are only a sideline of the film.  Shark Attack III: Meglodon, for instance, would have been completely forgotten (and rightly so) if it wasn't for one particular line.*  S.O.B. is generally known -- if at all -- for one little bit of risque trivia. Yet it deserves more: it is one of the bitterest satires about moviemaking ever made.

Blake Edwards doesn't often come to mind as one the world's greatest directors, but he had a long and very successful career.  He's underrated in part because he did mostly comedies, which are often underrated. Edwards started out in TV in the 50s and became a success with Peter Gunn** and moved to movies with such hits at Breakfast at Tiffany's, Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther***, and The Great Race.

Then he hit a slump.  A few so-so films ending up with the fiasco Darling Lili, an attempt to showcase his new bride, Julie Andrews. Edwards and Andrews wanted to show her in a role where she wasn't playing a goody-goody character, but the film went way over budget and flopped badly.

Edwards went into a slump, with several smaller budget flops until he reteamed with Peter Sellers**** for three new and successful Pink Panther sequels, and then became atop the movie heap with the smash hit 10.

And that's when he wrote and directed S.O.B.  The movie is about director Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), who after nearly going insane due to the bad reviews and box office for his film Night Wind, decides to reshoot it and add a nude scene for his goody-goody actress wife Sally Miles (Julie Andrews).

Edwards's bitterness over Darling Lili spills over into every scene.  There isn't an admirable character on screen.  Everyone -- including Farmer and Miles -- is conniving, grasping, completely filled with self-interest -- and wickedly funny.

Andrews obviously has fun with the parallel to her screen persona. Sally is sweetness and light on screen, but something of an egotistical prima donna off. Andrews, of course, has never really complained about her Mary Poppins/Maria roles, but has definitely wished that people would see her as something else.

And, of course, her nude scene is what is most noted about the film. Edwards was smart:  its shot as unerotically as possible.  Sally just tears off her top and stands there.  I think that's partially a comment on how people make too big a deal about such things.

The best performance, however, comes from Robert Preston as Dr. Feingarten, a quack who's always ready for the right drugs for any movie star's needs.  Preston's career had its ups and downs.  He was a movie success, but never a star until his definitive Harold Hill in The Music Man both on stage and on the screen. But he never capitalized on it.  Dr. Feingarten is just a great role, they type of character that makes you want to see more and who you find yourself looking forward to his every line.

The film wasn't perfect.  The last half hour adds a new subplot that is slow and not particularly funny. Because of this and some mixed reviews, the film did only fair at the box office.

But by the time the results were in, Edwards was already shooting his next film: Victor/Victoria.  The success of that kept S.O.B. from hurting Edwards's career.  It also made people forget about, it though. It is one of moviedom's greatest and bitterest satires.


*Known to those who managed to suffer through it as "THE LINE." 

**Where he began his long collaboration with Henry Mancini, who wrote music for many of Edwards's movies.

***Most people may know that the name "Pink Panther" does not refer to Inspector Clouseau, but rather to the jewels that is the movie's McGuffin. But people tend to forget that in the original film, Clouseau was just a supporting character and there are many scenes without him.

****Who was in something of a career slump himself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Zapped (music)

Zapped (1970)
Various Artists

Music success is all about promotion. Every artist and record company has to find ways to get their songs out to a potential audience.  Companies try various ways, but, for a short time, one method was the sampler album.

A sampler was different from a compilation (say, That's What I Call Music). The record company would put out a record* with songs from new upcoming artists and then sell them very cheaply, usually only through mail order. Warner Brothers records did this a lot in the late 60s and early 70s with their Loss Leaders series; whenever you bought an album they'd have a list of samplers that you could pick up for $2 for a double disk (very cheap even then).

At this time, the great Frank Zappa ran not one but two record labels:  Bizarre Records and Straight Records.  Since both labels were distributed by Warner Brothers, a sampler was released.  Zapped was only one disk, and sold for $1 (plus postage, I believe)

The album was a masterpiece of the avant garde of the time.  The 13 songs included**:

  • Alice Cooper -- Titanic Overture
  • Alice Cooper -- Refrigerator Heaven.  Cooper was known at the time as a group whose members wore dresses (it was still the group name, not the lead singer).  I remember listening to this and being unable to decide if it was a bad song by a good group or a good song by a bad group.
  • Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band -- The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica).  Of course, no one ever topped the Captain for avant garde credentials.  This is one of his most famous songs, a gonzo talking blues shout out about the blimp arriving.
  • Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band -- The Old Fart at Play.
  • Judy Hensky and Jerry Yester -- St. Nicholas Hall.  Yester replaced Zal Yanovsky in the Lovin' Spoonful and later teamed up with his wife Hensky.
  • Tim Buckley -- I Must Have Been Blind. He's gained a cult following since; at the time, his music was described as "acid folk."
  • Wild Man Fischer -- Merry-Go-Round.  Fischer was a street musician in Los Angeles who'd make up songs for passers by when Zappa found him and recorded him. "Merry-Go-Round" is a strangely infection off-key chant, and his signature song.
  • Tim Dawe -- Little Boy Blue.  I don't know much about him, nor do I remember the song all that well.
  • Lord Buckley -- Governor Slugwell. Buckley (no relation to Tim) was a groundbreaking comedian and poet, who made his name with some unusual monologues.  This is evidently not a good indication of his work, but the name is well known among professional comics.
  • Jeff Simmons --  Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up.  Simmons had played with the Mothers, and this song features some great guitar work by Zappa.
  • The Mothers of Invention --  Holiday in Berlin.  Of course.
  • The GTOs -- Do Me In Once and I'll Be Sad, Do Me In Twice and I'll Know Better (Circular Circulation).  Another Zappa project.  The name stands for "Girls Together Outrageously," three music groupies based in LA.  The song is actually pretty good, with some top musicians there, willing to help out.
  • Frank Zappa -- Willie the Pimp.  From Zappa's Hot Rats LP, with Beefheart on vocals.

It hard to say how well the album sold:  it was cheap, but not sold in stores, and clearly these were not acts that were going to make gold records.  Alice Cooper was the only one to who did.***  Zappa/the Mothers and Captain Beefheart continued on long careers until Zappa's death and Beefheart's decision to give up music for painting.  Jeff Buckley died young; Lord Buckley had died a decade before the album was released.

The LP is now very hard to find (except, of course on eBay, where it's pretty inexpensive).  There was no effort to convert it to CD.  Indeed, I'll bet many of the artists here are just not available any more. But it's a great look at how record companies back in the day were willing to sign acts on talent as much as their commercial potential.


*These predated CDs by a decade.

**There were actually two slightly different versions of the record, with some different songs.  The second version replaces "Refrigerator Heaven" with "Reflected'; "St. Nicholas Hall" with "Horses on a Stick"; "Governor Slugwell" with "The Train"; and "Holiday in Berlin" with "Valerie."

*** I remember being astonished hearing "I'm Eighteen" making the charts; I never expected them to be that popular.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Tin Men (book)

by Michael Frayn

The Tin Men It's always fun to discover a new author.  It's even better when that author goes on to bigger and better things.  For me, one of those authors was Michael Frayn.

I came across The Tin Men when it first came out.  Frayn had been a newspaper columnist when he started writing novels, and The Tin Men is a memorable debut.

It's a story about the denizens of the William Morris Institute of Automation Research, a British think tank trying to develop robots and filled with bizarre characters and schemes.

For instance, Macintosh is trying to create robots with a moral sense. He figured the simplest solution was to put the robot on a sinking raft with something or someone else and set up its programming so it will sacrifice itself to save another.  It wasn't easy: at first the robot would throw itself overboard no matter what was on the raft.  Then he programmed it to sacrifice itself only for an organism more intelligent than itself.  So if there were a person, it would calculate the size of the person's brain.

Goldwasser was inventing newspaper headlines that were completely meaningless, but which everyone recognizes ("Strike Threat Probe"). Everyone had their own mania, and when it's announced that the Queen will be visiting, all sorts of madness erupts.

But, for me, the best sections describe Hugh Rowe, who wants to be a novelist.  He tries through unconventional methods.  For instance, he writes the reviews first, hoping to see what the book is about.  When he gets down to writing, he spends the first chapter describing characters down to the finest, most ridiculous detail ("There were four finger and a thumb on each hand") and worrying about the details he left out (the number of buttons on the man's shirt, the size of his shoes, etc.).

The next of Rowe's chapters is a hilarious psychological mishmash ("Anna plainly knew that Nunopolis understood her feelings about Fiddlingchild, and she knew too that Nina knew she knew about Nunopolis's knowledge.")  The third chapter is a breezy slangy bit of jazz-tinged gibberish that finally has Rowe giving up the writing altogether.

Yet there is a moment in the novel where Rowe is asked to describe what he wants to write.  Frayn describes a very evocative scene, but when Rowe tries to talk about it, he cannot make it work like it did in his mind, and the questions by the person asking about it make the whole thing seem trivial.  That is, in many ways, the dilemma of every writer:  translating what's in your mind onto the page, and Frayn encapsulates it quite accurately.

The book did OK (though better in the UK than in the US), and Frayn went on to bigger things.  He switched to writing plays.  Noises Off was a big success, and he eventually won all sorts of Best Play awards for Copenhagen.

But even from the beginning, you could see he would be a big talent.  The Tin Men is a very funny book with some interesting depth to it. I can't say that you could see the writer who wrote Copenhagen, but there are certainly signs that Frayn could go on to something much bigger.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys (music)

  Larry Parker (guitar/vocals), Roy Michaels (bass), Bob Smith (Keyboards), Michael Equine (drums).  (Later added Paul Johnson (guitar), Jan Ungar (bass, violin)).
All Music Guide

Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys might make the list of one-hit wonders, and most histories concentrated on that hit.  But if you listened to FM radio in the early 70s, it was another one of their songs that you'll remember with a smile on your face.

The group started in New York, playing clubs and signing a record contract. They got their friend Jimi Hendrix to produce their first album, which gave them their hit "Good Old Rock 'n Roll."  Hendrix even hired them as his opening act.

"Good Old Rock 'n Roll" was about the rock that the band grew up with, and actually used quotes from several well-know songs, more of a medley than a song. There was a verse in the beginning, which then segued into "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Long Tall Sally," "Chantilly Lace," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Party Doll" before returning to the original tune.


This was actually quite new to many listeners of the time.  If you missed the 50s, you didn't often have the chance to hear these songs (oldies stations were just getting started). I'm sure many of those who bought imagethe song had never heard the originals before.

But the hit only went to #25 and there was turmoil and turnover.  Charlie Chin left the band, and was replaced by Jan Unger and Paul Johnson, who recorded their second album, Albion Doo-wha.

It didn't do well, but it spawned one of the great FM radio tracks: Jay Unger's "Strike a Match and Light Another":

In the first days of this country when the buffalo roamed the land,
All the saddle tramps and cowboys used to roll their own by hand.
Well they'd swing up to the saddle on their ass or on their horse
And recite a little ditty that went like this of course.

When your feet are in the stirrups and your ass is on the ground
Cause the grass that you's been eating is the finest stuff around
Well let us not remember boys and let us not forget
Strike a match and light another marijuana cigarette.

Yes, a song about the joys of marijuana.  This was sung to a cheerful tune that was just plain goofy, with some non sequitur lyrics and a great deal of wit. It was really impossible to listen to without smiling, even if you weren't stoned.  And the free use of the word "ass" was also a plus in a time when it was banned from the radio.  Perfectly legitimate here, of course, since it was talking about a donkey.  (Right.)

But the song wasn't enough.  The group struggled on for a few more years before calling it quits and have pretty much been forgotten.

Except for one.  Jay Unger went off on his own tangent writing folk-influenced music. One piece, "Ashokan Farewell" was picked by filmmaker Ken Burns to be included in his epic documentary, The Civil War.  It was played throughout the miniseries (25 times, according to Wikipedia) and became the theme song for it.  Many people even think it was an actual Civil War era song.  I must say I was delighted to realize the song was by the same person who wrote "Strike a match."

The group's albums are hard to find, of course.  I'm not sure if they even made it to CD.  But they were a tiny but memorable piece of rock history.