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 (semi-spoiler alert), 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):

Thursday, October 16, 2014

UB40 - Geffery Morgan

I recently got my new iPhone model (the 128 GB 6S) in the mail after waiting most of a month for it (I REFUSED to stand in line at an Apple Store like a knucklehead to buy it . . . unlike plenty of others, in my observation). I loaded all of the information off of my old iPhone onto, then went looking for some new applications to add to my now-huge capacity. One that seemed pretty cool was the Bandsintown app, which notifies you of live music events in your area, based upon the music you have stored on your phone.

This app was ideal for me; I don't know how it is in your area, but it seems that nowadays it's getting harder and harder to find out when cool bands are coming to town. Until fairly recently, my go-to source for information on local concerts was the local weekly free newspaper you could find on the street and in places like record stores and coffee shops. I'm sure that there are many other methods of finding out this info, but the weekly alternative press was something I was used to, and had used for decades for finding out what was going on. When I lived in Washington, DC, I looked forward to every Thursday,
when the newest edition of the superb DC City Paper would be out on the streets, so I could see who was playing that week at The 9:30 Club or The Black Cat. In San Francisco, the SF Weekly knew the ins and outs of that city's music scene; down the coast, the LA Weekly kept me informed of what was happening down there. Even Dallas, Texas had a decent weekly, the Observer.

But in recent years, the alt press has been taking a beating, mostly due to changes in the music business and media in general. Record companies used to spend a lot of time and effort ensuring that their album releases were written up in these journals, and these papers counted on that conduit of somewhat exclusive music information, because it drew readers and generated advertising revenue. But with the rise of the Internet came changes in not only the way people acquired their news, but also how they purchased their music. Music companies realized they could reach many more people by promoting their wares online rather than via newsprint, and people began going to iTunes or Amazon for albums and songs, rather than visiting their local record shops. So the weekly papers began losing influence and revenue, especially once the major music retailers (Virgin Megastore, Tower Records, Sam Goody/F.Y.E., etc.), the papers' major outlets, began consolidating, downsizing and closing their doors. These days, a lot of these alt-weeklies are just holding on, after slashing their staff and scope of coverage. The local papers up here weren't as fortunate - the long-running Boston Phoenix shut down in early 2013. Its sister paper, the Providence Phoenix, containing
information on happenings in Rhode Island, has recently been harder and harder to find, and I finally found out why - it too is finally throwing in the towel, with its final edition published yesterday. So like I said, now that I have none of my old reliable concert information sources to rely upon anymore, this Bandsintown app will be very useful.

I fired the thing up and it did a scan of my phone's songs, then provided me with a list of all of the artists and similar artists who may or may not be on tour (the bolder the name of the group, the closer/more imminent their next show would be). I was rather surprised to see, of all the bands listed, the group UB40 on the tour roster. I thought those guys had broken up years ago!

I used to be a big UB40 fan back in the day. Like practically everyone else in America, my gateway to this band was their song "Red Red Wine", an old Neil Diamond cover that was the band's first US hit, peaking at #34 in March 1984, during my plebe year at the Naval Academy (the song was re-released as a single in the States in 1988, and this time made it to #1). As plebes, we weren't allow to have radios or music devices (well, at least not officially . . . !). But no matter - you heard "Red Red Wine" everywhere that spring, wafting out of dorm rooms throughout Bancroft Hall. Soon after Plebe Year officially ended that May (just before the senior class graduated), I went into downtown Annapolis and made my first "legal" music purchase of Labour of Love (containing that song) on cassette at a local record store.

I thought that every song on Labour of Love was fantastic. While "Red Red Wine" was the only tune that made an impression on America, three other songs ("Many Rivers To Cross", "Cherry Oh Baby" and "Please Don't Make Me Cry") also made the UK and Irish Top 20, and the album went multi-platinum in England (and sold a million copies in the U.S.). Over the next year, I set out to acquire the rest of UB40's back catalogue, haunting record stores in the DC area, looking for import copies of their original British albums. By the summer of 1985, I had managed to acquire pretty much all of them -  
Signing Off, Present Arms, Present Arms in Dub, UB44, The Singles Album, UB40 Live.

What I loved about UB40 in those days is the power and conviction they put into their music. They weren't just a bunch of Brits dabbling in reggae - they WERE a rock-solid reggae/dub band, with a sound that seemed to come straight from the Caribbean, but dripping with political meaning and social consciousness, aspects that resonated with the Britain of the late 70s/early 80s. Once I listened to these discs, these aspects got to me as well. Songs like "Tyler" (about a 17-year-old black Louisianan wrongly imprisoned in 1976 for the death of a 13-year-old white boy - this song was intended to be UB40's first U.S. release in 1980), "King" (about Martin Luther King) and "One In Ten" showed that these guys weren't fooling around. It used to be said back in the early 80s that the Irish band U2, with their politically-charged songs and events, was "the only band that mattered". I would venture to say that, in terms of "mattering", UB40 far outstripped U2 in that regard. When I heard that the band was going to release a new album in the fall of 1985, I was extremely hyped up for it.

Geffery Morgan come out that October, as the follow-up to UB40's U.S. breakthrough album Labour of Love. It had favorable sales, but I think it was a disappointment to those American buyers looking for another "Red Red Wine". As such, its been sort of an overlooked release in this country, only making it to #68 on the Billboard 200. But I feel Geffery Morgan is one of the great UB40 albums, perhaps their last great album, with some of the best original material they ever did. The opening trio of tunes, "Riddle Me", "As Always You Were Wrong Again" and "If It Happens Again" are incredibly strong, and set the tone of quality for the rest of the album. Other highlights include the beautiful "Seasons", the jazzy experimental "the Pillow", the superb "I'm Not Fooled So Easily", and one of their great closers "You Eyes Were Open".

In many ways, Geffery Morgan is truly UB40's transitional album, the dividing line between UB40's purer reggae/dub releases earlier in their career and the poppy, less-adventurous, radio-friendly "reggae karaoke" they seem to have gotten into immediately afterwards. While the reggae groove on this album is still strong, in many songs ("Riddle Me", "You're Not An Army") you can sense the band's movement to the mainstream. Note that their next U.S. release, Little Baggariddim featured their Top 40 cover (with Chrissie Hynde) of the crowd-pleasing "I Got You Babe", followed by 1986's Rat In The Kitchen album, full of what were in my opinion watered-down faux-reggae hits.

UB40 went through a bad patch shortly after the release of Rat In The Kitchen. In 1987, bassist Earl Falconer was involved in an auto accident in England that killed his brother, UB40's producer Ray "Pablo" Falconer. It was determined that Earl Falconer's blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, and he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison (the band's only release during his time in jail was 1988's Labour of Love II). However, the band rebounded soon after Falconer's release. UB40 released Promises & Lies in 1993, their first volume of new material in almost five years (this is the album that Bitty McLean worked on). The album contained their biggest hit, a cover of Elvis Presley's "(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You", that was used in the Sharon Stone movie Sliver. This pop-reggae number reached #1 in the U.S. in May 1993, where it remained for seven weeks. It also marked the effective end of my UB40 fandom. The group released several more albums over the past twenty years, including two more Labour of Love compilations. Their releases are regular visitors to the UK Top Thirty, but they haven't done squat in America since Promises & Lies. In my mind none of their discs of the past two decades capture the fire, power and conviction of that band that came storming out of Birmingham nearly forty years ago.

2008's TwentyFourSeven was the last UB40 album featuring all of the original members. In 2013, amid much acrimony and serious financial issues (including bankruptcy declarations by several group members, related to their label's woes), UB40 divided into two factions, with original members Ali Campbell (lead vocals), Mickey Virtue (keyboards) and Astro (trumpet, toasting) leaving the main body and touring as a trio, but still billing themselves as "UB40". Just last month, the main band filed writs against the "UB40" trio in High Court, claiming that they have no rights to the name. The case has yet to be heard, but it is bound to be a long, drawn-out, contentious affair, as neither side seems willing to back down. For the moment, however, there are TWO UB40s currently out on tour. All in all, it's a sad coda to a once-great band.

So here, for your listening pleasure is Geffery Morgan, in my opinion the last, best representation of UB40 as an accessible but authentic reggae band, released thirty years ago today (October 16th, 1984) on DEP International. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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