Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Screaming Yellow Zonkers (food)

Wikipedia Page

Screaming Yellow ZonkersUsually, I buy snack food for the taste.  With Screaming Yellow Zonkers, I bought them for the box.
Not that they were bad.  Screaming Yellow Zonkers were candy-coated popcorn -- like Crackerjack without the peanuts and the prize. Since I didn't care for peanuts, and the prizes in my day were cheap plastic toys about the size to choke a two-year-old, that meant they were the best part.
And then there was the box.
Like the Morning Chex Press, the box was covered with strange and witty comments.  My favorite was at the spot where grocers stamped the price:  "Easily cheaper than diamonds of equal weight."  There were oddball lists and strange directions, like the words printed on the bottom of the box: "This might be the bottom of the box.  To find out, open the top, and turn the box upside down. If the Zonkers fall out, this is the bottom. If they fall up, this is the top. If nothing happens, this box is empty.”
The boxes also featured cartoons and oddball art*. It was as much fun reading the box as it was eating the food.  And the boxes changed every few months, giving you a reason to buy more.
They also has some impressively strange ads:
Screaming Yellow Zonkers were produced for a surprisingly long time.  I used to find them on grocery shelves even in the 90s.  But when your main selling point is the words on the box, and that has to change every few months, it's hard to keep things going.  I also suspect the packaging cut into the profits.  In any case, a conglomerate bought their original manufacturer and stopped making them in 2007. 

Addendum: Good News! (4/18/12)

Screaming Yellow Zonkers are coming back!  ConAgra, who now owns them, will be making them available in Walgreen stores starting May 15 (for a limited time).  

*It's also billed as the first product to use predominantly black packaging.  That may be so.  It was tricky to print all black; you had to cover the package with black ink and the white-on-black text required it be done perfectly.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Firesign Theater (comedy)

Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor
Wikipedia Link
Firesign Theater Website

Back around 1970, I was at a party. The record supplying the music was done, and I put another one one.  A comedy record.  People were complaining that they wanted music, and that they couldn't hear what was happening, and meanwhile the party conversations went on, ignoring everything.  But after about ten minute, the group slowly became quiet, so they could catch everything being said.

Don't  Crush that DwarfThe record was from the Firesign Theater.

They were a group of four writers/performers who started out doing radio plays and quickly graduated to records. They were as big a revolution in comedy as Monty Python's Flying Circus, who were starting out around the same time.

The group took its name from astrology -- all four members were Fire Signs* -- with a nod to the old Fireside Theater radio show. They took the conventions of radio drama and added psychedelic sensibilities and wove it all into a dense collection of comic brilliance.  In the early 70s, you could say, "Wait a minute, Danger.  What about my pickle?" and people would go off on long riff and quotes of the absurdist dialog that were their stock in trade. The Firesign Theater created more in-joke quotes than anyone except Python: 

  • "That's just a two-bit ring from a Crackerback jox."
  • "She's no fun.  She fell right over."
  • "Antelope Freeway, one half mile."
  • "What kind of chump do you take me for?"  "First class."
  • "I can shout.  Don't hear you."
  • "And you can believe me, because I never lie, and I'm always right."
  • "You can wait here in the sitting room, or you can sit here in the waiting room."

(Yes, if you know the Firesign Theater, these are as funny as "This is an Ex-parrot!")

At their best, the Firesign theater was far ahead of its time.  They would, for instance, stop to listen if they had said thing on the other side of the record, and one half of a phone conversation on one album would have the other half showing up on another.  Their work was filled with social commentary (some prescient), slapstick, anything-for-a-joke humor, and more.  It never got stale, no matter how often you listened.

They started out in radio on the west coast, but were signed with Columbia Records, and put out their first album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him in 1968.  It consisted of only four tracks.  "Temporarily Humbolt County" was a bitter satire on manifest destiny, but the true genius of the album was the title track, which took up the entire second side of the album, about a traveler lost in a country where everything is confusion. 

imageThe album was successful enough for a second one, this entitled How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? It really only had two cuts:  the title one, a skewed look at American consumer culture and their best known piece (and comedy classic):

Announcer: Los Angeles.  He walks again by night! Out of the fog.  Into the smog (cough cough). Relentlessly. Ruthlessly (“I wonder where Ruth is”).  Doggedly (dogs bark) Toward his weekly meeting with . . . the unknown. At 4th and Drucker he turns left, at Drucker and 4th he turns right, he crosses McArthur Park & walks into a great sandstone building! ("Oh my nose!") Groping for the door, he steps inside, and climbs the 13 steps to his office. He walks in. He’s ready for mystery. He’s ready for excitement.  He’s ready for anything. He’s…
Nick Danger (picking up ringing phone): Nick Danger, third eye!
Phone Voice: Yes.  I want to order a pizza to go, and no anchovies.

The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye is a parody of radio detective shows, with the hero meeting a Peter Lorre type mysterious man. And a search for Melanie Haber . . . . Audrey Faber. . . Susan Underhill . . . Betty Jo Bialowski!**  This is the point where most people became fans. 

They topped this with their next release, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, a parody of the teen "let's-put-on-a-show" movies of the 40s, but with their usual twists and surreal humor.  There was only one track, as they followed George Leroy Tirebiter, former child star, in his film High School Madness as he tried to find out who stole Morse Science High, as it gets mixed in with a Korean war movie.  The two plots run parallel -- or rather, are twisted like rope. 

It's actually pretty pointless to try to describe.  You just listen.  Rolling Stone has called this "the greatest comedy record ever made," and I certainly agree.  Though it's not anything you pick up on immediately.  The jokes are so multilayered that it takes several listens to begin to catch them all, and the more you listen the funnier it gets.  It was a pinnacle of comedy, as amazing in its own way as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The next album, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus was a slight dropoff (understandable).  They followed that with a collection of their radio shows called Dear Friends, showing their earlier comedy.  But their next album, Not Insane was a disappointment, and they never really recovered, even though they did some good work afterwards.

The group remains together today, doing live shows of their work, and the various permutations also released albums over the years.  Proctor and Bergman worked together,*** and Ossman and Austin also did solo work. But they never made the break into TV or films, and they became forgotten by all but their long-term fans. 

But for their first three albums, they put forth a brand of comedy that was all their own.  No one has ever come close.

* An Aries, a Leo, and two Sagittariuses.

**He knew her as Nancy.

***I saw them in the mid-70s.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Willie Dixon (music)

Wikipedia Entry

When you list the great American songwriters of the 20th centuries, the names would usually include people like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin, and Harry Warren.*  But the one name that's overlooked when people try to list the names is Willie Dixon.

Dixon grew up in the Mississippi delta and became interested in music and the blues.  He moved to Chicago in 1936 and after an abortive attempt at becoming a boxer, he started performing and writing songs.  In the early 50s, he was signed as an act by Chess Records. Though Dixon did record, his greatest influence was a bass player and songwriter.

His songs were first recorded by Chess artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter, but they were listened to by dozens of budding rock and blues musicians, who, when they got recording contracts, played Dixon's songs.  Groups like The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, the Allman Brothers Band, George Thorogood, Cream, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees, the Grateful Dead, and many others recorded Dixon's song.

The titles should be familiar to any rock or blues fan:  "I Ain't Supersitious," "Back Door Man," "Little Red Rooster," "I Can't Quit You, Babe," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Spoonful," "Wang Dang Doodle," and hundreds of others. 

Dixon was instrumental in the success of Chess Records, with his songwriting, bass playing, and production.  As that faded, he began organizing and performing in blues festivals in Europe, where British musicians were starting to record his work, too.  He was more of a behind-the-scenes guy at this point, but in 1970, he released I Am the Blues, the first time in years he stepped out to be noticed by the public and not just musicians.

Like everyone in the music business, Dixon was screwed out of a lot of his royalties, but as time went on, he was able to win a few lawsuits to get what he deserved**.  And the recognition came in, too:  he was named to both the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.


*If Harry Warren doesn't mean anything to you, it isn't because you don't know his songs:  "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "That's Amore," "42nd Street," "Lullaby of Broadway," and many more.  I may write about his some day, but for now, go to the Harry Warren webpage.

** Including a couple of plagiarism suits against Led Zeppelin, who are now notorious for taking songs without the proper credit.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Rehearsal for Murder (TV)

Rehearsal for murder(1982)
Directed by
  David Greene
Written by Richard Levinson and David Link
Starring Robert Preston, Lynn Redgrave, Patrick McNee, Lawrence Pressman, William Russ, Madolyn Smith Osborne, Jeff Goldblum, William Daniels
IMDB Entry

I've written elsewhere that most of the made-for-TV movies of the 60s and 70s were dismal.  That also true for those of the 80s, but every once in a while, there was a gem.  And that applies Rehearsal for Murder.

I'm a sucker for and old-fashioned whodunit and this is one of the best this side of Agatha Christie.*  The set up is simple:  at the opening night of a Broadway play, leading lady Monica Wells (Lynn Redgrave) commits suicide after getting bad reviews about her role.  A year later, her fiancee, playwright Alex Dennison (Robert Preston) gathers the principals in an empty theater to read a new play he's written.  You see, Dennison never believed Monica killed herself, and the play is a trap to show not only that she was murdered, but who did it.  He brings in the detective who originally investigated the case, Lt. McElroy (William Russ) to watch the proceedings in an attempt to convince him of the truth.

The suspects are:

  • David Mathews (Patrick McNee), her co-star, who Monica spurned.
  • Lloyd Andrews (Lawrence Pressman), her director, who was also in love with Monica, and was angry when she announced her engagement.
  • Walter Lamb (William Daniels), the play's producer, who stood to lose big money on the flop -- but who could recoup it with an insurance policy if she were dead.
  • Karen Daniels (Madolyn Smith-Osborne), her understudy, who would to anything to be a star.
  • Leo Gibbs (Jeff Goldblum), Karen Daniel's lover, who would do anything to make Karen a star.

The various actors have no idea what they're getting into, but follow Dennison's script (under protest from some) until the real killer is revealed.

The movie was written by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, probably the best TV mystery writers of their era**, with shows like Burke's Law, Colombo, McCloud, Murder She Wrote, and Mannix to their credit.  They were probably the best practitioner of mystery scripts in the history of TV.

It's hard to single out who's best in their roles, but my nod is to William Daniels for one particular scene.  His character is the one person who has no acting experience and when he reads it role, he fills that part perfectly, stumbling over lines and saying them with the tentativeness of a true amateur.  It's seems incredibly hard for a pro actor to "unlearn" all his skills to sound the way he has been working for years to avoid.***

But it's a pleasure to see Robert Preston, Patrick McNee, Lynn Redgrave (in flashback), and Jeff Goldblum also taking part in a clever and twisty script.

Only Agatha Christie could do this better.

* It's also rare to see them on television; their home seems to be on stage.  As a matter of fact, the screenplay for Rehearsal for Murder has been adapted for the stage and may show up at a community theater near you.

**Not that TV had many good mystery series.  People didn't seem to like the traditional whodunit, and generally didn't care for mysteries at all until CSI brought the police procedural after all.  There were cop shows, and detective shows, but they never concentrated on the puzzle that makes mysteries so much fun.

***Alan Steele, one of the "Travis Tea" authors of the Atlanta Nights hoax, faced a similar problem when trying to write like a terrible writer for the book and could only do it by getting roaring drunk.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The New Spirit of Capitol (music)


New spirit of capitol I've written before about sampler albums: compilations of music from a particular record label whose goal was to introduce people to new music.  Warner/Reprise had several of these, available by mail if you bought an album, but they weren't the only ones.  Capitol Records tried the same thing in 1969 with The New Spirit of Capitol.

Capitol was probably the biggest US record company in the 60s, with the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  But in 1970, the Beatles had broken up and the Beach Boys were considered washed up* and had moved on.  Also, there was a change in management so that EMI Records was more involved.

So, in order to trumpet the changes, they released the album, The New Spirit of Capitol.  It consisted of an eclectic mix of British groups, especially from their Harvest label and US names and a surprising number of groups that went on to be superstars.  The tracks were:

  • Steve Miller Band -- Little Girl.  Miller was successful from the first, and this was from his fourth (and best) album, Your Saving Grace.  But he did not become a major name until he had a hit with "The Joker" several years later.
  • Hedge and Donna -- Jamie.  A folk-rock duo with soul influences who never made much of a splash.  "Jamie" is a soft rock tune parts of which seem very much like Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne."
  • Joe South -- Games People Play. At the time, this was the best-known song on the album -- a top 20 single.  South was a very successful songwriter, but this is the song that first comes to mind when his name is mentioned.  It takes its title from a best selling self-help book of the time.
  • Linda Ronstadt -- Silver Threads and Golden Needles.  Ronstadt at the time was just launching her solo career after a hit as lead singer for the Stone Poneys.** The song is a rock version of an older country song, and her voice is as good as ever***.
  • John Stewart -- July, You're a Woman.  Now known as host of The Daily . . . no, that that John Stewart.  He was actually a big success before this album, as a member of the Kingston Trio and this was from his first solo attempt.  He later had some hit songs in the 1979.
  • David Axelrod -- A Little Girl Lost.  Named White House Chief of . . . no, not that David Axelrod, either.  He was a producer and A&R man who started a performing career.  Though he has been successful, he's never was a chart topper.
  • Edgar Broughton Band -- Toy Soldier.  One of the Harvest Records acts, the band never was a hit in the US.  Broughton's voice has been compared to Captain Beefheart, and he even covered one of the Captain's songs, but he was more a blues artist than avant garde. "Toy Soldier" was a blackly humorous and very bitter antiwar song.
  • Grand Funk Railroad -- Please Don't Worry.  Grand Funk was just starting out; this was from their second album and the first to go platinum.  Grand Funk were becoming superstars as New Spirit was released.
  • The Sons -- It's Time.  A San Francisco group, originally called The Sons of Champlin.  Nice song, but they never caught on.
  • Pink Floyd -- Astronomy Domine. Believe it or not, Pink Floyd was just a cult British group up until Dark Side of the Moon.  This was the earliest, four-minute version of "Astronomy Domine" from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, so it wasn't even a new song.  Still, it's always been the most outstanding song from the Syd Barrett era.
  • Guitar, Jr. -- Broke and Hungry. There were two acts named "Guitar Junior" in the blues world; this one eventually switched his stage name to Lonnie Brooks.  This is classic electric blues and Brooks had a long career after this.
  • Bob Seger System --Innervenus Eyes.  Yes, that Bob Seger. At this time, he was trying to find the right mix to break out nationally; this song is somewhat more spacey than you'd expect from him.
  • Mississippi Fred McDowell -- The Red Cross Store. McDowell was a slide guitarist who played for years in northern Mississippi until he was discovered in the late 50s, where he immediately became a sensation in the blues world. 

The album just hit #200 on the Billboard top 200 list for one week, then vanished.  I picked it out of a cutout bin for 39 cents.  It was the best record bargain I ever got.****

*A few years earlier, I saw them at a free concert at Nassau Community College on Long Island.  They didn't draw 200 people.  For free.

**"Different Drum," which had been written by Mike Nesmeth of the Monkees.

***Linda Ronstadt put less emotion into her singing than any singer I've ever heard.  Her voice, though, was a magnificent instrument and a pleasure to listen to.

****Not counting legal free music, of course.