Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Creation (music)

Original Members:
Kenny Pickett, vocals; Eddie Philips, lead guitar; Jack Jones, drums; Bob Garner, bass
Wikipedia entry

Sometimes a music group seems to have all the pieces to become stars, and still never manage to break through.  The Creation surely fits into this category.  I only heard of them recently* when their name came up as a suggestion from  When I listened, I discovered a very talented group that never got the right breaks and whose history had some eerie connections with the Who and the Beatles.

The group started out as “The Mark Four,” playing just north of London and – like the Beatles – in Germany.  Two singles were released, but when nowhere.  But in 1966, the group signed with new management, changed bassists,** and changed their name.

Shel Talmy, best known for producing the early Who albums, produced their first singles.  “Making Time” was their first attempt.

Making Time by the Creation

The song had some similarities to the Who circa “The Who Sing My
Generation.”***  But instead of a monster hit first time out, the song failed to crack the top 40.

Their next song, “Painter Man” showed further promise, breaking into the top 40.

Painter Man

The group had a dynamic stage show, with guitarist Eddie Phillips**** showing some good licks and innovation, including playing the guitar with a bow.  They often performed “Painter Man” while spray painting the stage and setting it afire.

However, instead of building, things started falling apart.  It’s possible that a band that sounded like the Who was at a disadvantage when the Who was around.  Finally, Kenny Pickett, their lead singer, left, and their next single was a departure from the sound of the first two, confusing their fans.  No album was released in the UK.

In Germany, though, things were different,  the group was a major success there, with “Painter Man” going to #1.  Their singles and unreleased tracks were cobbled together into an album, "We Are Painterman,” but it was never released outside of the Continent.

The group remained a footnote and was forgotten.  Pickett and Phillips, the group’s songwriters occasionally collaborated (notably on “Teacher, Teacher,” recorded by Rockpile).  And, as time went by, there was an appreciation of the group’s talent.  Phillips and Picket re-formed the group in the mid-80s, and the original lineup was back in place in 1993, due to the high regard of the group in some circles.  The reunion ended when Pickett died in 1997, though Philips still is around making music.

It’s one of the more interesting what-might-have-beens in rock history.

*I’ve read Lilian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia multiple times over the decades, and also the NME Encyclopedia of Rock.  Neither mentions them.

**Bob Garner, like Paul McCartney, played bass backing up Tony Sheridan.

***Including the same guitar, bass, lead singer, drums combination.

****Peter Townsend supposedly asked him to join the Who as a second guitarist. He declined.

*****Including a short stint by eventual Faces and Rollling Stones guitarist Ron Wood.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mose Allison (music)

image(1927- )
Official Website
Wikipedia Entry

Jazz and blues may have a common heritage, but they diverged rather quickly into two streams.  I’m a big fan of the blues, and, though I can appreciate jazz, it’s not my favorite. Sometimes I even find it hard to understand how the two are related.* But there’s someone who clearly shows that the two are closely related:  Mose Allison.

Allison was born in Mississippi so maybe the blues was in his blood.  He took up piano and began to make a name for himself as a jazz musician, recording with Stan Getz and others before recording his first solo album in 1957.  In the beginning, the record company didn’t like him singing, but he managed to sneak in a couple of original songs and vocals on his albums.  These are the tracks that made his reputation, and finally, when he was allowed to sing on all the songs on an album, it made him into a major name in blues and jazz.

Allison had a distinctive voice.  It could probably be described as thin, but he used it perfectly.  He had a way of flattening the notes in a way that added a plaintiveness to his tone and brought the blues come to the fore. It was also distinct because his piano playing was so deeply rooted in jazz as his vocals were part of the blues.

The result was something like “Young Man Blues**”:

Young Man Blues

Allison put out albums for five decades and his work has been covered by people like Cactus, Paul Butterfield, The Clash, Elvis Constello, The Kingston Trio, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Leon Russell Hot Tuna, The Yardbirds, and Johnny Winter. His most covered song, “Parchman Farm” is blues with a real kick at the end; the final line changes your perception of the singer 180 degrees.

Parchman Farm.

Allison never became a big star for two reasons.  First, it’s hard to become a big star playing jazz or the blues; the genres both have relatively limited appeal.  Jazz and blues artists haven’t topped the charts since the 50s.  Even more of a problem was that Allison fell between the two genres.  Record companies didn’t know how to market him, and fans might see him as being in one genre or another – but not the one they preferred.

Still, he has had a long history of success (including an album as recently as 2010), and he was a pioneering figure in music.

*The blues sound more like early country music to me, especially with someone like Jimmy Rodgers.

**Familiar to those who know the Who and their classic album Live at Leeds.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fletcher Knebel (author)

Wikipedia Page

Fletcher KnebelPolitical humor dates badly.  I remember taking an Art Buchwald column during the Watergate days and saving it, because it was the funniest thing he had written.  Six months later, it was mildly amusing.  A year later, it was just barely funny.  Now, I doubt anyone would laugh it all.*

It’s the same thing for political drama.  Political books written in the Cold War era just don’t have the same impact today, and have long since been forgotten.  But one of the biggest names in the genre was Fletcher Knebel.

imageKnebel was a reporter and political columnist in the late 50s and early 60s. He started writing novels, joining up with another newspaperman Charles W. Bailey.  Their first novel – and the only one by Knebel that is still familiar today was Seven Days in May.  It was the story of an attempted military coup against the US president, inspired in part by Knebel’s meeting General Curtis LeMay.**  The book was a massive popular and critical success, and spawned a well-regarded movie.***

For most people these days, that’s probably all that Knebel is known for.  But he continued to write successful political thrillers into the 1980s.

He followed his success with Convention, then parted company with Bailey to write on his own.  All his books were of the same type:  political events lead to serious questions like what to do if the president may be insane (Night of Camp David)**** or an important top aide disappears (Vanished) or if the presidential candidate dies just before the election (Dark Horse).  The books were great page turners.

But I doubt they’d have much appeal today.  The assumptions and fears were in a far different political climate.  Trespass, for instance, is about Black militants taking revolutionary action, something that was a potential (if unlikely) threat back then, but which sounds just silly today.

Still, Knebel was a major success, his books selling over 6 million copies worldwide.  All are out of print (including Seven Days in May, though you can buy the movie), and aren’t likely to be rediscovered. 

Knebel died in 1993, committing suicide after a long bout with lung cancer.  Ironically, his most famous quote is “Smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics.”

He may never come back into style, but his writing is worth remembering.

*It was titled (at least in my local newspaper), “What We Have Learned So Far.”  Buchwald evidently understood the problem; as far as I know, it was never reprinted in any of his books.

**LeMay was a successful commander who became too right wing for the military, famous for his comment about bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age.  He advocated using nuclear weapons in Vietnam and ended up running as George Wallace’s vice president for the American Independent Party in 1968.

***The book was actually near-future science fiction.  The movie tried to show this by using people talking on videophones.

****Written prior to the 25th Amendment spelled out the process.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Don Juan Demarco

Written and Directed by Jeremy Leven
Starring Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway.
IMDB Entry

In these beyond-cynical times, romance is very difficult to bring off.  Few movies of recent vintage are out-and-out romantic without being cloyingly sweet.  That is certainly why Don Juan Demarco has been overlooked.

It’s the story of a mysterious young man (Johnny Depp) who claims to be the famous lover, Don Juan.  After attempting suicide, Don Juan is put into a mental institution, where Dr. Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) decides to determine if he is insane.  It doesn’t help that he insists he is Don Juan, and Dr. Mickler is Don Octavio, his host at the villa where he is staying. 

The movie succeeds almost entirely to Depp.  His Don Juan is not out for conquest, but to bring romance and pleasure to women.  He seduces them with a romantic intensity that is irresistible.  In the example below, his outfit is ridiculous, and his dialog is just this edge of over the top, but Depp manages to make it completely believable:

Don Juan’s first seduction*

Marlon Brando really gets a second placer to Depp in the acting department, though his role has far less for him to do.  Faye
Dunaway is good as Dr. Mickler’s  wife, whose life is affected by Don Juan, too.

Director Jeremy Leven was originally a psychologist when he started writing novels.  He adapted the screenplay of his first novel, Creator, and one more before getting this chance to direct, after which he spent several years without a film credit.  Eventually, he was the scriptwriter for several other romantic comedies,** but none that were so well done.

This is a movie for anyone who believes in love.

*One nice little touch is that, about a hour into the film, you can spot the same woman in the same restaurant, looking longingly at door as she waits for Don Juan to return.

**I dislike the term “romcom” and detest the assumption that a romantic comedy is not for men.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bosom Buddies (TV)

Created by
Robert L. Boyett, Thomas L. Miller and Chris Thompson
Starring Tom Hanks, Peter Scolari, Donna Dixon, Wendy Jo Sperber, Holland Taylor, Telma Hopkins, Lucille Benson.
IMDB Entry

I’ve mentioned the concept of “better than it has any right to be” to discuss movies and TV shows that sound terrible when described but which, when you watch them, turn out to be better than you might have thought.  Bosom Buddies falls into this category primarily because of two reasons:  the excellence of the cast, and the fact that the creators didn’t conceive the show in the same was as the network.

The concept of two men dressing in drag was so old and dated that you’d think the producers would have known better.  And they did.  Boyette and Miller had pitched the show as a buddy comedy; Laverne and Shirley with men.*  They made the mistake of telling the network executives that they wanted something akin to Billy Wilder’s comedies.  “Who’s  Billy Wilder?” the executives asked.  The producers said, “He directed Some Like It Hot.”  “Great,” said the executives.  “Drag comedy.  We love it.”

Boyett and Miller couldn’t turn down the offer, and had to fit it to match the inadvertent concept.  So, after choosing “My Life” by Billy Joel as their theme song, Bosom Buddies went on the air.

The concept revolved around Kip Wilson (Tom Hanks) and Henry Desmond (Peter Scolari), two young aspiring admen who had their apartment torn down.  Amy Cassady (Wendy Jo Sperber), a co-worker, told them about the great deal she got in a New York apartment.  The problem was it was located at the Susan B. Anthony Hotel, and was only open to women.  This being sitcom land, a plan presents itself.

So Kip and Henry become Buffy and Hildegard** and take up residence in the hotel.  Kip pushes for the arrangement because he has a crush on Amy’s roommate Sonny (Donna Dixon) and convinces Henry to go along to get material for a book he is writing.  They have to keep away from the hotel manager, Lily Sinclair (Lucille Benson).  Telma Hopkins plays Isabel Hammond, another resident.***

The first episode was not promising, with the acting a bit broad, and plenty of the T&A that was popular at the time with the audience (but not with critics).  But the show quickly began to downplay the Three’s Company leering as well as the drag angle.  It was a part of each show to keep the network executives happy, but much of each episode would take place in Kip and Henry’s workplace, with their scheming boss Ruth Dunbar (Holland Taylor).

Peter Scolari and -- yes -- Tom HanksIn the second season, the show got an major overhaul that made it even better.  In the first episode, and Kip and Henry revealed their deception.  Isabel, who had taken over from Lily Benson in running the hotel,**** let them continue to stay, and the drag angle was dropped almost completely.  Instead, Kip and Henry were running their own TV production agency, with financial backing from Ruth Dunbar.  The romance between Kip and Sonny could develop far more normally.

The scripts were a big help, but the talent is clearly the best part of the show.  Tom Hanks, of course, became a major and well-respected actor.*****  Peter Scolari , though, has had a very successful career in TV, with voiceover work plus a regular role in Newhart (I preferred his character to Hanks, since he was more of the funny man).  Holland Taylor has also been in several TV shows as a regular, most notably as Mrs. Harper in 2 1/2 Men; she’s at her best as an acid-tounged woman.  It’s the same for Wendy Jo Sperber and Telma Hopkins – both became very successful, if not exactly household words.

The show also succeeded not by its stories – which were fairly routine – but by the one-liners sprinkled throughout and with the occasional touch of real drama.

The show ran for two seasons and was never a big hit.  It was critically scorned, but looking at it now, it’s a show that was entertaining and worth a look.

*They had produced that show, as well as Happy Days, so had some clout.

**The names were a result of each one trying to give the other the most ridiculous name possible

***Hopkins was making the switch from a singing career (she was part of Tony Orlando and Dawn).

****Evidently, she ran off to join Chuck Cunningham.

******There’s an amusing and prophetic scene in the third episode where Hanks pretends to have won an Oscar.