Sunday, January 31, 2016

Krazy Ikes (toy)

Krazy Ikes(1964 – ??)

Toymakers in the 50s and 60s loved plastic.  And why not?  It’s a cheap material, colorful, and can be used in many ways.  Building toys, especially.  When I was growing up, the main ones were Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs (both made of wood) and Erector Sets (made of steel).  But both were limited.  Lincoln Logs just allowed you to build log cabins, Tinkertoys were totally freeform, and Erector Sets were held together by nuts and bolts that were a pain to set up and take down.  When my parents took a trip to Copenhagen, they brought back a Danish toy that I had never seen in the US:  Legos.  The other toys were lost in their wake.

Not that people tried.  Whitman, Inc. had been making a toy since the 30s, and changed it to plastic.  Instead of making houses, you made people and animals.  They called it “Krazy Ikes.”

imageIt was a clever design.  There were several bodies, with little round stubs – a sphere on a short connector – for the legs, arms, and heads.  There were also heads, but the key were the arm/legs.  These snapped onto the stubs and could be moved in any position (think ball-and-socket joint).  This made the results fully artculatable and posable in any postion.  You could mix and match to make anything you wanted.

It was a brilliant idea.  Not only could you make whatever you wanted, but you could also play with them, interchange parts, and generally have fun.

Alas, the toy had a very short life.  By the 70s, it was gone.  Too bad.  I enjoyed it almost as much as Lego – and mostly because you could use your imagination.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mott the Hoople (music)

Ian Hunter (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Mick Ralphs (guitar, vocals), Overend Watts (bass), Verden Allen (organ), Dale “Buffin” Griffin (drums)
Wikipedia entry

In memory of David Bowie and Buffin.

It’s rare that rock acts get second chances.  Their success can usually be plotted on a bell curve, and once you start to drop, it’s over except for the oldies circuit.  One notable exception was Mott the Hoople. 

imageThey first came to attention in 169 for two reasons:  A high energy album, which featured the hard rocking “Rock and Roll Queen.”  And a cover featuring artwork by M. C. Escher.*

The album put them on the map.  Made up mostly of covers, it did include works by band members Ian Hunter and Mick Ralphs.  It was not a major hit, but it put the group on the map, and people expected them to be stars.

But it wasn’t to happen.  Their follow-up, Mad Shadows, was considered a step back and their next, Wildlife, garnered little interest.**  Brain Capers did even worse*** and they lost their contract to Atlantic/Island records.  It looked like they were going to have to go back to their day jobs.

Then, David Bowie stepped in.  A fan of the group, he offered to produce their next album, and gave them one of his songs:  “All the Young Dudes.”****

The song was a hit, reaching #3 in the UK and #27 in the US.  The album of that title also charted.  The group was back in business.

But could they keep up the success without Bowie, who had other projects.  The answer was their album Mott, which was a rousing success.

The album had a theme about life of a rock and roll band.  “All the Way from Memphis” – the opening song, and a classic of rock – told of a time that Hunter once lost his guitar. 

Other songs talked about their life and their fans, but seemed to have a sense of humor about it all. The album doesn’t have a bad track on it.

But success started to take its toll.    Mick Ralphs left to form Bad Company, so the next album, The Hoople was recorded without him.  He was replaced by “Ariel Bender,” a pseudonym for Luther Gosvenor of Spooky Tooth.*****  Ian Hunter had written most of the music, so started thinking about a solo career.

The album was a step backwards, but then, that was pretty much inevitable.  Ian Hunter left for a solo career.  Watts and Buffin, tried to keep things going, but the group was just a shadow of itself, and, other than live and compilations, the group was done.

It turned out to be a short run, but with one classic album and another two that nearly reached classic status, Mott the Hoople were an important part of the 70s rock scene.

*Escher had not quite made it in the popular culture at this point; the album cover was many people’s first experience of him.

**”Whiskey Woman” was a pretty good rocker like “Rock and Roll Queen,” but it paled to the original.

***It wasn’t helped by a amateurish cover. 

****After they had turned down “Suffragette City.”

*****Verdan Allen had quit during the Mott sessions when they wouldn’t include his songs.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I Married a Witch

Directed by
Rene Claire
Written by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly, based on an uncompleted novel by Thorne Smith (completed by Norman Matson)
Starring  Fredric March, Veronica Lake, Robert Benchley, Susan Hayward, Cecil Kellaway
IMDB Entry

In the 1940s, there was a small boomlet of fantasy films and at some point someone thought to try to use Thorne Smith again.  Smith was a popular fantasist of the 1930s, best known today for Topper. So in 1942, French director Rene Clair got hold of an unfinished novel by Smith, The Passionate Witch and managed to convince Preston Sturges and Paramount to make it into a move.  The result was I Married a Witch.

It starts in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, where Johnathan Wooley (Fredric March) convicts Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) of witchcraft, where they are burned at the stake and the ashes buried beneath a tree, but not before Jennifer curses Wooley and all his descedants to marry the wrong woman.

In 1942, the curse continues, but a bolt of lightning frees Jennifer and Daniel.  They go seeking the descendant of Wooley – Wallace (March) who’s about to marry Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward).  Jennifer appears in a human body to torment Wooley – but ends up falling in love.

The story is slight, of course, and March and Lake make the most of their roles.*  March was the better actors, as his two Oscars show; Lake really was just a hairdo.  Still, she is fine as Jennifer, and Cecil Kellaway does a good job as her father.

The concept, of course, was used the next year in Fritz Lieber’s novel Conjure Wife and, of course, years later in Bewtitched.**

*Evidently, they hated each other on the set

**Though the TV show just used the idea; the characters were far different

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (music)

Written by
Rick Wakeman
Performed by Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, Mike Egan, Seve Howe, Alan White, Dave Winter, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk, and others.
Wikipedia Page

I was, and still am, a fan of progressive rock of the 70s.  It’s fashionble to scoff at it, calling it bombastic (which was part of what made it great) and self-indulgent (a code sneer for mucians who produce songs that last longer than four minutes), but the concept of melding rock with classical and jazz is exciting; rock can be more than three chords (though three-chord songs can be great, too).  One of the landmarks of the genre was Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Wakeman was a keyboardist and first came to prominence as a studio musician* and was first credited as a member of the folk-rock group, The Strawbs.  He backed David Bowie and joined Yes for the Fragile album, where he became known to the public.

During his years with Yes, he decided to do a solo album, which became Six Wives.  Wakeman had read a biography of Henry VIII and he realized something he had been working on would fit in with what he was reading about Anne Boleyn.  Wakeman gathered musicians he worked with with Yes and The Strawbs and put together the album.

Each of the six songs are named after one of the six wives.  They are musical impressions – there are no lyrics, though some songs have vocals.  The order is a bit odd:  it’s not chronological.

My favorite is “Catherine Howard,” which starts out with a beautiful melody before going off into other directions.  The songs all switch from rock, to classical, to waltzes and is always interesting.

A&M Records, which distributed, thought it would be a flop:  an instrumental album of a melding of classical and rock.  But they were wrong.  It got a big boost in the UK when he performed it on The Old Grey Whistle Test.**  Wakeman got lucky:  the show competing with his performance – a biography of Andy Warhol – was cancelled at the last minute and the audience turned to – and loved – Six Wives.  The album caught on in America and went gold.

Wakeman continued success with other themed albums:  Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but he made his mark with Six Wives.

*That’s his piano on Cat Stevens’s “Morning has Broken.”

**A UK music show that concentrated on more serious rock music.