Friday, October 31, 2014

Various Artists - Night Of The Living Dead (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

I've been thinking hard about becoming one of those "cord-cutters" I've been hearing so much about, and finally dumping my cable television subscription.  At this stage of my life, cable is a nearly useless frivolity nowhere near worth its monthly purchase price.  Frankly, I simply just don't watch that much TV anymore - or at least the TV the cable companies want me to watch.  I could care less about the endless variety of "reality" shows and singing/dancing contests that befoul the airwaves nowadays - I wouldn't watch Duck Dynasty, Naked & Afraid or Dancing With The Stars at gunpoint.  And don't get me started regarding network television - it's all so samey; either bland sitcoms (I once tried to sit through episodes of The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men - I didn't make it to the first commercial break) or gussied-up whodunit dramas (seriously, how many versions of CSI/NCIS/WTF do they air each week?).  If it weren't for The Daily Show, South Park, Downton Abbey and the occasional Ken Burns documentary on PBS, I'd rarely have the set on at all during the year.

In many ways, it feels odd now to feel so ambivalent about television; for folks my age, TV was an essential and formative experience in our lives from nearly the very start.

Looking back now, I'm amazed at the stuff I used to watch - and that my parents let me watch - regularly at a young age; not just kiddie fare, but some relatively sophisticated stuff (for late 60s/early 70s TV, that is . . .). For example, in addition to I Dream of Jeannie and Daniel Boone, I never missed an episode of Land Of The Giants or The Mod Squad - I was four years old at the time. The next year, when I was five, I recall being bitterly disappointed when I learned that a favorite program at the time, The New People, a hokey drama about hippies surviving a plane crash and building a new society on a desert island, had been cancelled mid-season.

As I got older and was allowed to stay up later, my taste in TV shows continued to skew to programs made and marketed for adults, moving away from fluff like Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father and Nanny & The Professor and into things that were on past 8:30 pm, like Alias Smith and Jones (alas, Pete Duel . . . he could have
been a big star), Longstreet, Kung Fu and Mannix (quite possibly the most violent network TV show ever aired).

I can't really say that absorbing these 'grown-up' shows at a young age affected me all that much. I mean, watching the fistfights, car crashes and gunplay on Mannix didn't desensitize me to violence, or turn me into some kind of sociopath later in life. I'm sure that, like me, you've heard stories of kids during the 1950s who would watch George Reeves' Superman program, then go out and injure themselves by tying capes to their necks and jumping off the roof of their homes. I've always considered those tales to be mostly apocryphal - kids aren't really as stupid and impressionable as adults think they are, and learn at a very early age what is real and possible in real life and on TV, and what's not. Even back then, I knew that commercial spaceflights, blind detectives and pretty blonde witch-wives didn't really exist. I got it - I just enjoyed the programs.

But there was one aspect about watching those sort of shows relatively late into the evening that had a profound effect on my mind and soul - the Seventies were the Golden Age of classic horror movie trailers airing during breaks, commercials seemingly tailor-made to scare the absolute piss out of any little kids who might happen to be awake that time of night. I couldn't tell you how many times I would be watching TV by myself or with my siblings in a darkened den, when suddenly one of those goddamn things would fill the screen! None of us could get out of the room fast enough, screaming with fright and holding our hands to our ears to block out the sound! It got to the point where, for a couple of years, whenever a show faded to an ad break, I would get up and stand near the doorway to the room, so I could quickly make my escape should something scary pop up on screen.

Here's a prime example of the sort of stuff that would rear its head at any time during the night; this film trailer used to jolt the absolute bejesus out of me when I was seven:

At the time, there was something about seeing a frog with a human hand hanging out of its mouth that just scared the crap out of me . . . so much so, that my dad used to tease me back then by saying "Hey, son!", then putting his arm up to his mouth so that it looked like his hand was sticking out! It never failed to upset me back then, but looking back, it seems pretty funny now.

Here's another one from later in the 70s that was also a guaranteed late-night kiddie room-clearer in my house . . . this trailer is still unnervingly creepy today - just listen to that voice:

As frightening as the movie trailers were, in many ways they had nothing on what used to appear as regular fare on the networks back then. Probably a lot of you are too young to remember, but back in the Sixties and Seventies, the Big Three used to have weekly-scheduled movie series - shows like The CBS Friday Night Movies, NBC Tuesday Night at the Movies, The ABC Movie of the Week (I used to love the opening for the latter - great music, and from what I understand, one of the first examples of computer graphics on television):

These movie anthology shows started out in the 60s, showing old Hollywood B movies and the like, but by the end of that decade, the networks wised up and stopped paying the film studios for their hoary old castoffs and box-office flops, instead producing and airing their own "made for TV" movies.  A lot of the home-grown stuff they showed on these programs was crap - tepid family fare, or pilots for possible future TV shows (long-running series like Kojak, Columbo and The Six Million Dollar Man started out as one-shot movie pilots on these programs).

But in some cases, the networks aired some pretty interesting, innovative stuff. For example, the car-truck cat-and-mouse thriller Duel, Stephen Spielberg's first big directorial effort, was a TV movie that was subsequently released to theaters. And the immortal sports classic Brian's Song, with Billy Dee Williams and James Caan as Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and the doomed Brian Piccolo, also began as a Movie of the Week.

 But where these made-for-TV movie programs really kicked out the jams was with the mysteries and horror movies they sometimes aired. I recall seeing The House On Greenapple Road (a superb early '70s detective classic that led to the show Dan August) and being jolted by its rather graphic depiction (for that period) of the aftermath of a grisly murder. I remember seeing another creepfest around that time, When Michael Calls, about a woman receiving phone calls from her presumably dead son. And of course there was the still-classic Trilogy of Terror in 1975 - anyone else remember that doll with the razor-sharp teeth attacking Karen Black in her apartment?

But for me, the hands-down gold standard for made-for-TV horror when I was a kid was a movie shown on ABC in the fall of 1973, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark:

In this film, a house full of particularly disturbing-looking goblins (that only come out at night, of course) set out to capture or kill the new tenants occupying their home. I sat and watched this one with my brother in our basement family room in Wisconsin, and for MONTHS afterwards, we couldn't enter a room at night without reaching around from the outside and switching the lights on first . . . and for a long time after that, I looked at wall heating grates with fear and apprehension.  The ending of this movie (and no, I won't give it away here) is one of the all-time great downbeat horror endings.  All in all, the tone and atmosphere of this film lived long in my memory, up until the present day (apparently, I wasn't the only one - director Guillermo Del Toro has been quoted as saying this movie scared the hell out of him as well when he was a kid).

As scary as these television movies were, I think that in some small way, I benefited from experiencing them, in that as I got older, there were fewer and fewer things that could really put the fear of God in me. Before I reached double-digits, I was a thrill ride aficionado, and couldn't wait to ride the roller coasters and other exciting rides at Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion every summer. My friends and I used to play in the woods near our homes well into the night, running through the trees in pitch blackness without trepidation. And I routinely walked home from a buddy's house on gloomy evenings through a long, dark and narrow path through a forest - I never gave it much of a thought at the time.

I look at my kids today - who refuse to ride coasters with me at amusement parks, who rarely if so much as walk across the street at dusk to see their friends, and who recoil with fear and revulsion whenever I suggest we settle in for the night with a classic scary movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Shining - and just shake my head sometimes. I think that kids today are scared of a lot more things for a lot longer, because so many of them have been protected for so long from experiencing frightening or disturbing things. And that's a shame. Oh well . . .

I'm a grown man now, jaded and cynical after all of these years . . . and yet there are still a couple of things that just freak me right the hell out.  For example:

A couple of years ago, when I lived in Maryland, I was flipping around the cable box one night and landed right in the middle of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, probably the only one of his movies I never caught when it was first released in theaters - I recall that night it was airing on HBO or something. I arrived just before the first 'accident', a graphic head-on high-speed collision between Kurt Russell's "death-proof" stunt car and a sedan full of women - a crash that Tarantino felt the "artistic" need to show over and over, from different angles, to show exactly what happened to each of the auto's occupants . . . Jesus. I don't know if you all have ever seen that movie or that particular scene . . . but as bad as it sounds with my description, it's much worse actually seeing it, and it rocked me and shocked me to my core. I don't know what Quentin was trying to accomplish with that section of the film, but if it was to deliver a sickening kick to the viewer's stomachs, then mission accomplished.

I bought Death Proof on DVD a couple of years later, to complete my Tarantino collection. For the most part, it's a pretty decent, entertaining film . . . but to this day I avoid watching that particular crash scene. I can't describe how or why it gets to me - I'm not squeamish, and I don't think I'm particularly sensitive. It's just a scene and an experience I have no interest in knowing all that much detail about.

Other than Death Proof, there's probably only one other film that still fills me with the same sort of shock, horror and dread - the original Night Of The Living Dead.

"Night Of The Living Dead?", you may be asking yourself - "That cheap-ass black-and-white zombie-attack throwback from the Sixties - are you kidding? Hell, there aren't even any decent special effects in that movie!" Yes, all of that is pretty much true. But it's that lack of production values - the grainy footage, natural lighting and settings, and odd camera angles - that makes NOTLD what it is. It comes off as less a film and more of almost a documentary, a chronicle of actual events that occurred that night. There's an undercurrent of realism that runs through the movie - in the movements, mindsets and actions of the various victims in relation to their plight - that makes you feel not only like "this really happened", but also "this CAN really happen".

And despite its lack of color, the film contains some of the most shocking scenes in horror film history. It goes without saying that zombie movies as we know them today basically didn't exist before 1968. With Night Of The Living Dead, director George Romero not only invented the genre, he also introduced an unprecedented depiction of gore rarely seen before that time. Animated dead bodies feeding visibly on human flesh and entrails was jolting back then, to audiences more used to the restrained 'shock' of a Christopher Lee Hammer Horror film or a Hitchcock flick. It remains jolting today.

The scene in NOTLD that always gets me is near the end, when the zombiefied little girl eats her father, then hacks her mother to death with a paving trowel in the basement . . . To me, that's a profoundly messed-up segment, with the girl's arm rising and falling again and again, and the sound of the trowel entering her mother's chest, over and over - brrrr! For me, unwatchable.

Not much thought was given to compiling a Night Of The Living Dead soundtrack when the movie was completed in the late '60s. In fact, it wasn't until more than a decade later that anyone got around to doing so.  The album is full of good ol' '60s-style incidental suspense/horror film music, along with a fair amount of dialogue from the film.  Apparently, it didn't sell very well - to the best of my knowledge, this disc has never been released on CD.

So here for your listening pleasure is Night Of The Living Dead (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), released on vinyl by the label Varese Sarabande in 1982. I hope that this soundtrack helps set the tone for your scary and spooky Halloween night. So have fun, and enjoy! And as always, let me know what you think.

(As for myself, I have no particular plans this evening, after the final trick-or-treater departs. I don't know . . . I guess I'll just stay in and watch some TV . . .)  

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* * * * * * *

Here's a fun fact: a small snippet from the final selection on this soundtrack album, "Funeral Pyre (End Title)", was used in one of the most disturbing (and yet hilarious) cartoon scenes of all time, the 'Call The Police' segment of Ren & Stimpy's "Rubber Nipple Salesmen" episode on Nickelodeon.  If you've never had the chance to experience it . . . bon appetit (and keep in mind that this was a show for children):


Friday, September 12, 2014

Various Artists - Uncut: Why Don't We Do It In The Road?

Well, this was supposed to be my "Year of The Beatles", with plenty of Fab Four posts here in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the band's first U.S. visit. Hasn't quite worked out that way, I'm afraid . . . although hope still springs eternal. I'm still trying to complete the blog post for the "Beatles vs.
Stones" poll from many months ago (among other entries I've been endeavoring to crank out) . . . but it's taking way longer than I anticipated. So as a stop-gap, here's a half-decent compilation of Beatles covers, released as a bonus attachment with an issue of the music magazine Uncut in the summer of 2001 - an issue that I purchased in real time many moons ago (and still have in my possession - it's over in a rack I keep in the corner of the living room of old music magazines I've liked and saved from over the years).

Here's the lineup:
1. Echo & The Bunnymen - Ticket To Ride
2. Lowell Folson - Why Don't We Do It In The Road ?
3. 801 featuring Phil Manzanera & Brian Eno - Tomorrow Never Knows
4. Teenage Fanclub - Tell Me What You See
5. Otis Redding - Daytripper
6. Siouxsie & The Banshees - Helter Skelter
7. Nils Lofgren - Anytime At All
8. Junior Parker - Taxman
9. The Damned - Help
10. Marianne Faithfull - I'm A Loser
11. Gene - Don't Let Me Down
12. Al Green - I Wanna Hold Your Hand
13. Tiny Tim with Brave Combo - Girl
14. 10cc - Across The Universe
15. Billy Bragg - Revolution
16. Laibach - One After 909
17. Joe Cocker - I'll Cry Instead
18. Rainer - Within You, Without You
19. Chris Farlowe - Yesterday
20. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - Here Comes The Sun
21. Peter Sellers - She Loves You
22. Lord Sitar - Blue Jay Way
23. Booker T & The MGs - I Want You (She's So Heavy)
24. Oasis - Helter Skelter
There's nothing particularly deathless here . . . in fact, there's a lot of stuff here (like the Tiny Tim and Peter Sellers versions) that is sort of annoying. But for the most part, it is interesting to hear the different ways these various artists take on these Beatles classics. Favorites include Otis Redding's sweat-soaked, muscular live version of "Day Tripper", Teenage Fanclub's "Tell Me What You See", and "I Want To Hold Your Hand", done in Al Green's inimitable voice and style. There are a lot of other winners here - I'll let you dig them up yourself.

So here, for your listening pleasure, is Uncut: Why Don't We Do It In The Road?, released as part of said magazine in July 2001. Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Please pardon my laziness . . .

Still up and running here, believe it or not.  Lotta stuff happening this summer, so I've been a bit lax at posting new stuff.  But not to fear - Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole is still active, and more of my pithy, delightful (ha) posts will be gracing your eyeballs soon.

Thanks for bearing with me.  In the meantime, I invite you to browse some of the older posts, for things you might have missed.  As always, EVERYTHING ever posted on this blog, no matter how old, is still available - all you need do is ask!

More later . . .

All the best to you from Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My first quarter-million

Sometime earlier this afternoon, this blog received its 250,000th visitor . . . not too shabby for a ramshackle, ham-bone, cobbled-together music site barely four years old! Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole has come a long way from its humble, tentative origins . . . and it's all due to the support and encouragement I receive from folks like you.

I'd like to thank all of you who, since the spring of 2010, have taken the opportunity to check out my little corner of the Web, and who have found something here that interested and/or intrigued you. I have done my best to make each and every entry here amusing, amazing, entertaining, informational and/or possibly enlightening (special kudos to the very few of you who have found the secret, hidden posts I've stashed here over the years . . . well done tracking them down!). I like to think that with the significant number of visitors I've had here, I've succeeded, somewhat.

And a final tip of the hat to you out there who have gone the extra mile and provided me with your comments, critiques and thanks for the music you requested and obviously care so deeply about. Reading and posting your comments is the thing about this blog I enjoy the most - so keep those cards 'n' letters coming!

Today is also Paul McCartney's birthday . . . so in honor of both our landmarks this June 18th, here's a special posting for the occasion: the two-volume Wingspan: Hits and History set, released by Parlophone on May 7th, 2001, compiling all of the McCartney post-Beatles hits between approximately 1970 and 1985, both solo and with his band Wings. All of the songs on the first disc, Hits, were hugely popular commercially, especially in the mid-to-late 70s when McCartney ruled FM radio. The second disc, History, is made up mostly of fan favorites, tunes that didn't become massive hits like the ones on the first disc. But there are still plenty on this half that you will recognize, like "Take It Away", "Helen Wheels" and "Maybe I'm Amazed". A lot of people slag Sir Paul for fully embracing mass-appeal radio pop after his groundbreaking days with The Beatles. Maybe that is so, but the guy knew what he was doing, and the results here speak for themselves.

Anyway, I have definitely enjoyed sharing my tunes with you all over the past four years, and (despite my recent slowness at putting new posts up) I have no plans to discontinue doing so any time soon - I've got a bunch in the pipeline as we speak. So I look forward to the next quarter-million visitors . . . and beyond!

Enjoy the tunes, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Various Artists - The Obscurity File

Back during my freshman year at the Naval Academy in the early '80s, we plebes weren't allowed to have radios or any sort of music or electronic devices in our rooms (this was a couple of years before incoming classes were issued with laptops, so I'm curious as to how that rule is currently enforced - if I was a plebe now, my computer would be jam-packed with .mp3s). Of course, this didn't stop the vast majority of plebes from smuggling in their newfangled Walkmans, and stashing them and their tape collections in various places in our rooms. I was no exception to this rule - a favorite hiding place was in the ceiling tiles above the bunks. By the time Plebe Year ended, I was surprised that the ceiling didn't collapse from all the cassettes I had stashed up there!

Anyway, starting in my second year in Annapolis, I made up for lost time, musically. WHFS, the local alternative station, was always on in my room (fortunately, my roommate was into that stuff as well). Later on, in the 1990s and beyond (before its untimely but predictable demise), 'HFS became more of a commercial 'modern rock' station, flogging stuff like tired grunge bands, Green Day and the like. But back in the day, the station was still fiercely independent and for the most part anti-commercial, and had DJs with the sack to play some pretty unheard-of, off-the-wall stuff that I ended up enjoying immensely. Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert, with his nasal, high-pitched voice, was the signature DJ and most recognizable station personality. But there were other on-air individuals - like Aquaman, Mother Earth Meg, Neci and the like - whose shows I enjoyed and regularly tuned into. I would occasionally tape some of their programs for later listening.

One night, one of the 'HFS DJs (whose name I've long since forgotten) played a 45-minute nonstop bloc of some pretty outstanding stuff, most of which I'd never come across before. I taped pretty much the entire show (still have that cassette stashed away in the basement). These tunes included Iggy Pop's "Run Like A Villain" off of his 1982 album Zombie Birdhouse (in the early 80's, Iggy was then in the midst of a long career slump; one he wouldn't pull out of until 1986's Blah Blah Blah), Pylon's "Yo-Yo" . . . and this peppy little New Wave gem:

I had no idea what the name of this tune or the band was, and after that one broadcast that evening, I never heard it on the radio again. But I thought it was great, and I never forgot the song and its lyrics - "Good luck, Ronnie Reagan - save us from ourselves". I hoped one day that I would run across it once again. It was literally decades later, actually, before I dug up more info on this song.

One day a few years ago, I plugged my rudimentary remembered lyrics into a search engine, which provided me with an answer. The song was called, appropriately enough, "Ronnie's Song", by a California band called LAX.

I did a little research on the group, and found that it was formed in 1980 and fronted by Redondo Beach's Carl Pritzkat, with his brother Mike on bass and their friend Chris Holmes on drums. The band gigged around the LA area, and in 1981, shortly after President Reagan's inaugaration, released "Ronnie's Song" as a single on Michricar Music. The tune was fairly popular in the Los Angeles Basin - the legendary DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on the influential station KROQ played this song frequently during the early '80s. This major-station exposure did nothing for LAX; "Ronnie's Song" was their only release, and they quickly faded away.

Armed with this new knowledge, I made several attempts to track down this incredibly hard-to-find single, with no success whatsoever. I finally found the song on a compilation album of way-out, forgotten early '80s chestnuts called (appropriately enough) The Obscurity File. Here's the song lineup:
1. Ogden Edsl - Kinko The Clown
2. Killer Pussy - Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage
3. Wild Horses - Funky Poodle
4. Unit 3 With Venus - Pajama Party
5. Little Girls - The Earthquake Song
6. Bouquet of Veal - Dwarf Tossin'
7. Angel & The Reruns - Buffy Come Back
8. Klondike Carl - Time Is A Ticky Talk
9. Brian Briggs - See You On The Other Side
10. The Bollock Brothers - Harley David (Son Of A Bitch)
11. LAX - Ronnie's Song
12. The Vandals - Urban Struggle
13. Scott Goddard - Cowpunk
14. Bird & McDonald - The Rodeo Song
15. Ogden Edsl - Kinko Returns
The album features tunes mainly by Southern California New Wave musicians, most of whom were "one-hit wonders" (the term "hit" being applied very liberally here) . . . but others who gained a little more recognition in the industry, including Angel & The Reruns (who were featured in the movie Bachelor Party; their song here is the infamous one referring to the drug overdose of Anissa Jones, who played "Buffy" on TV's Family Affair) and Scott Goddard, who used to be a member of The Surf Punks. For the most part, however, most of these songs were considered novelties, and as such were relegated to play on radio programs like Dr. Demento and late-night freakout shows . . . like the one on WHFS where I heard the LAX song so long ago. A lot of the songs here are silly, and this album post probably won't be breathlessly awaited by a majority of you. But if you find one song on here that's to your taste, you'll probably like them all. So, give it a shot, if you dare!

[And as for LAX's Carl Pritzkat, after his short career in the music industry, he went into the digital media field, founding Mediapolis in 1994. He recently joined Publishers Weekly as Vice-President of Business Development. It's good to see that music wasn't the beginning and end for him, and he's moved on and is doing well in life.]

So here for your listening pleasure is The Obscurity File, a collection of relentlessly obscure New Wave releases, put out by Oglio Records on July 19th, 1994, an album that I acquired based on the fuzzy memory of a half-recalled song heard over a quarter-century ago. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ed's Redeeming Qualities - More Bad Times

A hopelessly obscure and woefully nearly forgotten band, the alt-folk group Ed's Redeeming Qualities was formed by four New Hampshire friends in 1988.  Band members Carrie Bradley and Dan Leone met while they were students at the University of New Hampshire; they later linked up with Dan's brother Dom (who moved to the state from Ohio) and Neno Perrotta. With their quirky, funny songs (many of them written by the gifted and prolific Dom) and strange instrumentation (most of their music was driven by Carrie's violin, Dan's ukelele and Neno's bongos), Ed's Redeeming Qualities quickly became one of the darlings of Boston's late-80s indie scene, along with bands like The Pixies and Throwing Muses, playing places like the Middle East and the late lamented Rathskeller ("The Rat").

Sadly, soon after their Boston debut, Dom was diagnosed with cancer.  He died in November 1989, taking with him much of the band's spirit. After Dom's death, the band relocated to San Francisco, where they landed an album contract with a small folk label. They released two albums there in the early 1990s, More Bad Times and It's All Good News, but found little commercial success with them. Their only real mainstream radio exposure was on Dr. Demento's nationally syndicated novelty music radio show, where a couple of their songs were occasionally featured. Needless to say, that's not exactly the sort of exposure you're looking for to establish and maintain a following.

Probably the only reason I know anything about this band is that Carrie Bradley was briefly a member of The Breeders. She participated in the group's legendary demo sessions and their first album, 1990's Pod.  Ed's Redeeming Qualities received its biggest exposure in 1994, when The Breeders covered their song "Drivin' On 9" on their platinum smash Last Splash:

(The Breeders also covered the song on the Pod demos - I honestly prefer that version to the album version, but whatever . . .). Bradley joined the Deal sisters' band again as a guest during their 1994 Lollapolooza tour, and ERQ started receiving some favorable press during that time.

The positive vibes from Last Splash maintained Ed's Redeeming Qualities for a while, but with the lack of commercial success it was unsustainable. The group released one final album, At The Fish And Game Club, in 1996, before disbanding the following year. Since their demise, Carrie Bradley went on to form the band 100 Watt Smile, which released two albums in the late 1990s, and does a lot of session work. Both Dan Leone and Neno Perrotta became writers, Dan penning food and fiction columns for weekly alternative newspapers and Neno writing and publishing poetry. But ERQ is still beloved in the Boston area - they played a very well-received reunion show at TT The Bear's Place in Cambridge (just around the corner from the Middle East) in January 2011. And they still have plenty of fans across the nation, who appreciate and adore their strange and humorous songs. They might not be everyone's particular cup of tea . . . but they are well worth a listen.

Here's Ed's Redeeming Qualities' More Bad Times, released in 1990 by Flying Fish Records.  This was burned off of my vinyl copy (which, in an instance of synergynistic coolness, I bought off of a member of Washington State's Beat Happening), as the CD version is nearly impossible to track down.  Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ultra Vivid Scene - Mercy Seat and Special One EPs

More good stuff from that golden music era of the late '80s/early '90s . . . I used to catch the occasional Ultra Vivid Scene tune on one of the various alternative radio stations I listened to back in the day, and always enjoyed what this band had to offer.

Ultra Vivid Scene was essentially singer and guitarist Kurt Ralske, accompanied occasionally by a rotating host of musicians. Ralske was a gifted musician pretty much from the get-go; at sixteen, he had already gained entrance into Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. But Ralske was always a free spirit and seeker of sorts on all levels, never settling on one particular thing, but absorbing what he thought was necessary before moving on to the next location and experience. He stayed at Berklee long enough to gain a thorough exposure to jazz music concepts, before moving on to college in New York City in the early 80s, and falling in with some of the major figures in that city's "No Wave" music scene (folks like James Chance and Thurston Moore). These New York sounds, which included not only the contemporary experimental scene but also the output of the Velvet Underground and hardcore punk, were a major influence in the music Ralske was attempting to piece together. He joined his first bands while in New York, serving as guitarist for Nothing But Happiness (who released a single ("Narcotics Day"/"Couldn't Make You Mine") in 1985 and an album
(Detour) in 1987), Dissipated Face (sort of a punkier version of The Contortions), King of Culture and Crash, fronted by singer-songwriter Mark Dumais. When Dumais decided to relocate Crash from NYC to London in 1987, Ralske went along.

During his time in England, Ralske was exposed to the experimental, abrasive, guitar-driven sounds of bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. To quote an interview he conducted years later: " . . . the example of the Jesus & Mary Chain was very important for me. It pointed [toward] a way of doing things that were both simple and very complex at the same time. I was keen on this idea that things could have a simple form but actually be complex and subtle in their meaning."   It was the culmination of his extensive experience playing with his bands along with the profound influence The J & M Chain had on him that led him to form Ultra Vivid Scene in early 1988.

Ultra Vivid Scene (which, as stated above, was essentially Ralske) was quickly signed by 4AD later that year. His/the band's first recording, the four-song She Screamed EP, was released that August. Of all of the group's releases, it's the one that comes closest to emulating the Jesus & Mary Chain sound, albeit filtered through Ralske's extensive exposure to more mainstream rock (probably because it's the only release completely written, produced and performed by him). For example, here's the title cut:

UVS's first full album, a self-titled release, quickly followed in October 1988. The album is somewhat less abrasive and experimental than the preceding EP; the mixture of pop and noise here is definitely skewed toward the pop end of the spectrum. For me, in some cases (like the songs "Nausea" and "A Dream Of Love") this amalgamation is compelling; in others, it comes off as bland and whiny alt-rock. The best song on Ultra Vivid Scene in my opinion is "Mercy Seat", an almost perfect grind-pop meld of My Bloody Valentine and The Velvet Underground. [In my scrambled musical memories of years past, I had all but convinced myself that I had heard "Mercy Seat" in late 1987, more than a year before it was actually released. After a little reflection, I realized that I was confusing the song with the band Mercy Seat, former Violent Femmes vocalist Gordon Gano's gospel-punk side project, which released a self-titled album in the fall of 1987.]

The group and 4AD also realized what a winner they had in this song. In the spring of 1989, “Mercy Seat” was re-recorded and released on an EP, along with an excellent cover of Buffy St. Marie’s “Codine”, a new song called “H Like In Heaven”, and the original version of the lead track. The new version of “Mercy Seat” was augmented by a long, languid intro that almost doubles the track’s length but doesn't necessarily add anything new or compelling to it - in many ways, it weakens the power of the original album cut.

Here's one of the two videos made for "Mercy Seat" (the shorter version) - I included this one because near the end of the clip (at about the 3:25 mark), you can catch a glimpse of one of Ralske's erstwhile session band mates - none other than Moby himself - with hair no less!

Both the album and the Mercy Seat EP were fairly well received by critics. But Ultra Vivid Scene's main problem at the time was that they couldn't translate their music to audiences in a live setting. The band set out on their first American tour in 1989, but the shows were not well received. Ralske hired musicians rather than doing it all himself, so there may have been an issue with getting these hired hands fully conversant in his music. In addition Ralske (admittedly) paid little attention and less interest as to how to adequately capture his studio sound in concert. The result was a series of poor shows that killed much of their momentum in America; they were reportedly so bad that after a label representative saw them play in New York, he recommended that Ultra Vivid Scene become purely a studio concern, and no longer be allowed to play live.

Despite these setbacks, UVS soldiered on. Ralske reentered the studio in November 1989 to record the follow-up to Ultra Vivid Scene. This time out, he enlisted some help - namely, an established producer (Hugh Jones, who previously produced well-received indie/alternative releases, including That Petrol Emotion's Manic Pop Thrill and The Icicle Works' debut album) and a bevy of seasoned studio musicians. He also got some assistance from some of his friends in the industry, such as The Pixies' Kim Deal. The extra support freed Ralske from shouldering the entire burden of putting an album together, and led to the creation of probably Ultra Vivid Scene's finest record.

The new album, Joy 1967-1990, was released in May 1990. Overall, it's a lot peppier and somewhat bouncier than its predecessor (perhaps reflecting the lifting of pressures off of Ralske), and it was very well received in both the UK and US. The album reached the British Top 60, and three cuts off of it charted on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The highest charting single in the US was Ralske's sole collaboration with Deal, the excellent song "Special One" (which liberally steals much of its riff from Big Star's "September Gurls"). Here's video of the song:

[This is purportedly the "official video" - there's another one I used to see years ago, a black and white version with just Ralske and Deal sitting together and singing . . . I always hated that video, because Kim Deal (as much as I love her) acts like a complete bitch in it and all but hijacks the performance - smoking, mugging for the camera, pushing Ralske off his stool and and one point giving him a vicious face slap . . . not her finest moment.]
As with the previous album, 4AD recognized this as the strongest track off the new disc, and subsequently released "Special One" on its own EP later that fall, along with three non-album cuts.

Despite the negative reaction to their first tour, in the wake of the good press they were receiving with the new album, UVS went out on the road again in 1990, starting with a small concert series in England. Again, disaster ensued. Ralske commented years later about the shows:
" . . . with great fanfare, there were four nights of performances at a smallish club in the centre of London called the Borderline. In the audience were all the press and everybody important in the music industry. And basically we went out there and completely sucked: we had a very inadequate performance. I have spoken to other people who told me that, that was the point at which the fate of Ultra Vivid Scene was sealed. The performances were so bad that 4AD apparently begged people not to write about it. [laughs] Nobody wanted to think or talk about this group at all, ever again."
Ralske's take of the reaction to their performance was pretty spot-on. From that point onward, 4AD's support of UVS was sharply curtailed. Yet the relationship between the band and the label continued for a little while longer.

Prior to the sessions for Ultra Vivid Scene's third release, Ralske put together a real band to go into the studio with (consisting of himself on guitar and vocals, Julius Klepacz on drums and Jack Daley on bass), and this time the music was a true collaborative effort between the three of them. Rev, with a clear, polished
professional sound, was released in October 1992. Once again, despite label trepidations, Ultra Vivid Scene went out on the road to support it. But this time, the trio was in sync, and the result was some superb live performances.  But it was too little, too late for the group. The album failed to chart in either the US or England, and only one song, "Blood and Thunder" made the Modern Rock chart. Ralske and his band were released by 4AD in 1993.

For most of the rest of the 1990s, Ralske made his living engineering and producing records for the likes of Rasputina and Ivy, while working on his own experimental electronic music (he released four albums in the late 90s / early 2000s). Since then, he has moved into other artistic fields. He is now a well-respected and award-winning video and media artist, who holds professorships at two renowned East Coast art schools, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the NYC School of Visual Arts. His works have been exhibited all over the world; have you ever been to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in downtown New York City, and noticed the video display right there in the lobby? That's his, and it's on permanent display there. His current curriculum vitae focuses mostly on his digital endeavors, barely mentioning his stint as a popular, groundbreaking alternative musician.

The online music magazine The Quietus featured an extensive interview with Ralske last October, the first he's given in many years. In it, he does much to all but dismiss his previous career in music. “I know there are some people that are still interested in those [Ultra Vivid Scene] records”, he stated, “but mostly I’m just focused on the present and the future. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.”  That sort of precious, pretentious "I'm a real artist now" attitude irked me, more than a bit. Kurt, you once made challenging, compelling, popular music - a creation that tens of thousands of people enjoyed, loved and still remember. OWN it, and respect your fans, instead of being a big arty wuss about it.

Shortly after I read the Quietus article last year, I received a letter in the mail, telling me I had been selected for jury duty that November.  I spent most of the first week of November cooped up with several dozen other similarly unfortunate members of the public in a dank room in the basement of the Rhode Island Superior Court building on Benefit Street in downtown Providence, just a little ways from the RISD campus. They gave all of us who weren't assigned a case time off every afternoon to go out to lunch, and I invariably made the walk down North Main Street to eat at Fat Belly's Pub.

It was during one of my lunchtime strolls through RISD that week that I saw someone walking towards me who I swore was Kurt Ralske - the guy had the same thinning hair and glasses that were in his interview picture. His words in the article - and my reaction to it - were fresh in my mind, and I was just about to address the man headed in my direction to see if it was, in fact, him . . . but at the last second, I just kept my mouth closed and let the person walk on by. It might not have been him at all - who knows? And even if it was, what would/could I say? I'll let him be content with his current life and career; I'll be content with the music he left behind.

And here it is for you all to be content with as well - two Ultra Vivid Scene EPs:
  • The Mercy Seat EP, released in April 1989; and
  • The Special One EP, released on November 12th, 1990.
Both discs were put out by 4AD, and distributed in the US by Columbia Records.  Enjoy these tunes, and as always let me know your thoughts.  

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:  

Mercy Seat EP: Send Email  

Special One EP: Send Email