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Pop Culture Mysteries: The Truth is (Maybe) Out There

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The media explosion of the past 50 or 60 years has led to a big increase in the amount of what anyone might call art or entertainment. (Not that everyone would find all of it artistic or entertaining, of course.) The invention of all our familiar mass communication technologies enabled that, and I revel in living in a world that’s completely flooded with pop culture. Come to think of it, that’s sort of a crucial theme to this blog.

What I think might be overlooked is that not only has a great deal of culture been created in this time period, but so has a stupendous amount of information relating to that culture. We’ve formalized things in a way that probably didn’t seem necessary or practical in past eras. It’s interesting to imagine what a medieval lute player would think of Slayer or what the Knickerbocker Club would think of modern baseball. But I also wonder what they’d make of the 117 different Billboard charts or a college football ranking system that takes into account six different computer-generated data sets.

Details play into our understanding of culture more and more, and Wikipedia and the Internet in general put them at our disposal with a minimum of effort. The ease with which facts can be learned has made it possible for netizens to be obsessed with ever more specific minutia. There are dusty Web backwaters where you can learn all about every conceivable piece of Calvin and Hobbes merchandise. About the lifetime winning percentages of all six Legends of the Hidden Temple teams. About the academic validity of the writing on blackboards in school-set pornographic films.

One side effect of all this, for me anyway, is a heightened fascination with those facts that still manage to fall through the cracks. If you have a basically proficient command of Google and something is still a mystery to you, chances are it is a mystery to society as a whole. Unsolved pop culture mysteries remind me of the vastness of time, in the face of a world where we expect nothing to still be hidden. Here are a few of the ones I find the most intriguing.

What was “Ready ‘n’ Steady,” and what happened to it?

Joel Whitburn is a meticulous record collector and researcher whose mission it is to own and catalog every record that has appeared on the Billboard singles charts since they were invented in 1958. He now has them all, except one.

D.A.'s "Ready 'n' Steady" bubbles under the Hot 100 on June 16, 1979, then bubbles its way into oblivion three weeks later.

For three weeks in June 1979, a song called “Ready ‘n’ Steady” by an artist called D.A. appeared on the “Bubbling Under the Hot 100” chart (which was, at the time, simply positions nos. 101-110). It debuted at #106, went to #103 then #102, then dropped off the chart—and apparently off the face of the Earth.

No one is known to own a copy of the record or know what the song or artist even was. Whitburn, the authority in this area who has tracked down literally everything else, is totally stumped. He now says he isn’t sure whether the record exists at all.

But the evidence is right there. What makes the “Ready ‘n’ Steady” mystery especially confounding is that for a song to come close to the Hot 100 a song has to be, you know, popular. That no one would own or have much knowledge of, say, a legendary unreleased track like “Carnival of Light” is unsurprising. But songs get on the Billboard charts by having their records bought and being played on the radio. People have to have bought it. Radio stations have to have a copies stashed in their libraries. Someone has got to at least remember the damn thing, right? …Right?

There is one other possibility, one that would be pretty bizarre, though maybe no weirder than a charting song disappearing without a trace. That would be that the song never actually existed in the first place. Who knows why or how a fictitious entry could make it on the chart (for three weeks at that). Could it have been a copyright trap to determine if someone was copying their information? Mapmakers add fake towns to their maps for this purpose sometimes, but since Billboard wants its proprietary chart information to be repeated as much as possible, I don’t see how this could be. Could it have been an inside joke by a rogue Billboard employee? You can’t rule it out, though if that was it, they really should have thought harder about making up a jokier sounding title.

What happened to the “Shot Heard ‘ Round the World” ball?

On October 3, 1951, a legendary baseball moment occurred. Down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning of a playoff game to determine the National League champion, Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run to end the game, defeat the rival Dodgers and propel his team into the World Series. It was a shocking turn of events that enveloped the Giants’ home stadium the Polo Grounds in complete bedlam, with Giants fans rushing onto the field in a state of euphoria.

Lost amid the insanity was the fate of one crucial object: the ball. It landed in the left field bleachers and hasn’t surfaced since.

The bat that Bobby Thomson used to hit the "Shot 'Heard Round the World" is in Cooperstown, but the location of the ball is a mystery.

There have been many conflicting stories. One man claimed the ball had been given to him as a child by a family friend, and the ink on it indicating it as such was determined to date from the period. Two eyewitnesses who are visible in photos of the event testified that they saw an African-American boy catch the ball in a glove and run away. An obscure book from the ’50s claimed the ball ended up with a woman named Helen.

One of the most intriguing accounts came from filmmaker Brian Biegel, whose film and book “Miracle Ball” present fairly convincing evidence that Helen was, of all people, a nun. This Sister Helen insisted all her possessions (including, presumably, the ball) be thrown into a dump after her death, and Biegel suggests this was because she was breaking the rules of her order to even be at the game in the first place.

That there’s recently been so much interest in finding this “Holy Grail of Sports” and that in 1951 whoever ended up with the ball didn’t think it important to come forward then or possibly ever, shows how much the concept of memorabilia has developed. Antiques Roadshow, eBay, Pawn Stars and other cultural elements emphasizing the collectability of things has transformed the significance we place on historical objects, and probably on contemporary objects as well.

What’s so interesting about that is that this is all happening right as objects would seem to mean less than ever before, in the age of e-books, mp3s and paying at Starbucks via mobile phone. I wonder if all this has alerted people to the increasingly few things that cannot be digitized. Historical items fall under that category of course, and I’d bet that as society grows more and more digital historical objects will grow more and more interesting to people, as the very concept of tangibility becomes more alien.

There are other mysteries in the world of antiques and collectables, but none about something so crucial to American pop culture. Indeed, Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld immortalizes the whereabouts of the ball as mythic. Huge industries have sprouted up recently dedicated to knowing the truth about old things. But deep down, perhaps even subconsciously, I think people yearn for there always to be a bit of mystery concerning the past. And the chances that the Shot ‘Heard Round the World ball will ever leave that realm seem very slim to me.

What is the origin of the vocal sample in DJ Shadow’s “This Time”?

I’ve discussed music sampling on this blog several times before. And while I’m disturbed by some of the more shallow uses of the technique, I’ve also mentioned some artists whose sampling I think is really artistic and interesting, such as “plunderphonics” groups who construct entire albums solely out of obscure vinyl samples, like the Avalanches. A similar if less dance-oriented artist who preceded the Avalanches is DJ Shadow, who the Guinness Book of Records credited with creating the world’s first completely sampled album with 1996’s Endtroducing.

Ten years later, DJ Shadow released a tepidly received album called The Outsider that was a good deal less sample-crazy. But its lead track, “This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way)” was built around one of the most peculiar samples ever.

Puff Daddy may have been happy to copy Led Zeppelin and the Police, but it’s apparent that more creative DJs try to outdo one another in finding the most obscure samples possible. The vocal sample on “This Time,” however, might be some kind of trump card, because no one, including DJ Shadow himself, knows who it is.

Apparently, it was found on a demo reel in an abandoned studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, labeled only with the name “Joe” and the year 1967. If Joe, or anyone who was aware of him making this recording, is still alive, they either haven’t heard this song or haven’t come forward.

The genesis of DJ Shadow and Joe’s track is a testament to the power and mystery of recorded media. How amazing, and strange, is it that a person can write a song and lay it down one day only for it to be both forgotten yet preserved, awaiting rediscovery without any of its original context, for decades?

Considering how much people know about obscure vinyl recordings—the videos breaking down the samples in Avalanches and DJ Shadow songs linked earlier attests to that—something like “This Time” makes you realize how much in fact how much culture we don’t remember. How much has been lost, forgotten or as of now hidden is, to me, incredible to think about.

What is “It doesn’t DO anything! That’s the beauty of it!” from?

Take a look at that quote. Does it sound familiar? I asked this question of six or seven friends and they all said it did. Apparently people across the country and world all do. So…what is it from?

Can you place it? Don’t worry. No one can. It has bedeviled the Internet for years and some truly epic attempts to figure it out have been made to no avail. Willy Wonka, the Simpsons, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—some guesses are more prevalent than others but nothing has proven correct. Investigators have scoured deep into the annals of pop culture looking for the line, and occasionally something reasonably close from a source that is today mostly obscure like this will show up.

Of course, that misses the point. The seeming ubiquity of “It doesn’t DO anything! That’s the beauty of it!” ensures that it can’t be from something most people are not likely to have seen. Chances are that it sounds familiar to everyone because everyone has heard something that sounds similar to at least part of it somewhere. Why this particular phrase has such a strong associative effect like that, and furthermore how and why and by whom it reached the public consciousness for being such, are sub-mysteries of their own.

I think this one is amazing because it’s a mystery so mysterious that it strongly challenges one’s perception of the mystery’s premise in the first place. It’s probably not truly a question seeking an answer at all, it’s more likely a vast sociopsychological phenomenon that creates a mystery without any any possible solution. You can try and try to find the answer, but ultimately you really can’t do anything with this one. And you might just say that’s the beauty of it.

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It’s the End of MTV as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

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In 1981, MTV was the first to land on the Moon.

The 24th MTV Video Music Awards, held on September 9, 2007, represented some kind of low-water mark in the channel’s history. This edition of the VMAs halved the number of awards, renamed the surviving ones to joky titles like “Most Earthshattering Collaboration” and “Monster Single of the Year” and solidified MTV’s party-all-the-time image by eschewing classier venues like Radio City for the Palms in Las Vegas.

With so many negative MTV elements coming to a head, it may have seemed appropriate when Justin Timberlake, accepting the award for Best Male Artist, expressed what many think is the reason for MTV’s ills. “Play more damn videos!” he said. “We don’t want to see the Simpsons [these ones] on reality television. Play more videos!”

Today, that metaphorical Moon (of places you can watch music videos) looks like this.

I’ve talked to many people my age who feel similarly. I can see why they do, at least at first blush; I’m as nostalgic about MTV as the next Echo Boomer. But I think when it comes down to it, in today’s world, it’s clear that both we and MTV are better off if they don’t bother too much with videos.

Before MTV launched in 1981, music videos had already been receiving considerable attention in the U.K. on “Top of the Pops” and elsewhere. But in the U.S. the format was mostly unknown, consigned to occasional appearances on variety shows, as between-movie filler on HBO and a pioneering program on the USA Network.

Of course MTV changed that, and the music video would go on to alter the direction of film editing and change fans’ sensory understanding of popular music forever. When it began MTV was basically the only place to see videos and therefore one of the best places around to learn about new music. After copycat shows on broadcast networks fizzled, it remained that way for a long while.

But you don’t need me to tell you that that isn’t the world we live in anymore. The Internet in general, and YouTube in particular, has put you, at this very instant, a few keystrokes away from virtually every music video ever produced.

So to sum up: Then, we had a single video at any given time doled to us by a massive media conglomerate whose primary objective was to garner ratings and get us to buy stuff; today, we have instant access to a Memory Alpha-like historical archive of the artform at any time or location we choose. I don’t yearn for the way of the past when it comes to this, and I don’t know why anyone would.

The movement of music away from the television and onto the Internet has been, in my view, an enormously positive development. When it was the dominant source of music videos, MTV was inert, a cultural master you could either choose to submit to or not. YouTube, music blogs, and the rest of the musical Internet is nothing like that. It doesn’t tell you what culture to consume and offer no alternative; it challenges you to seek out the culture that you, individually, will like the best. And if you accept the challenge (and to be sure, it is far more challenging than watching MTV), I think the results tend to be more rewarding.

Again, I’m sensitive to the feelings of those persons who fondly remember the days of “Celebrity Deathmatch,” “Say What? Karaoke” and videos being labeled “Buzzworthy” or “Spankin’ New,” because I am one. But, in this and many things, we shouldn’t confuse nostalgia with the way things should be now.

Nor should it be confused with a prudent business plan for MTV, not that MTV itself needs that advice. I can see a new Lady Gaga video on probably millions of different websites, but the only place I’m going to watch a new episode of “Teen Mom” (well, legally, anyway) is on MTV or MTV’s website. It’s clear that MTV foresaw this long ago, and if it hadn’t rededicated itself to original programming, there is no way it would be in existence today.

I don’t want to imply that I love what MTV is today, though. “Jersey Shore” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how its reality programming has devolved into being about partying and little else, and the slow descent of “The Real World” to this territory is especially saddening. Even when MTV tries to consciously go against that impulse, the results sometimes to lead to some of the worst scripted programming I’ve ever seen.

That being said, there are positive things to be said about MTV, and I think what it has become—essentially, a channel catering to teenagers and young adults—is a great thing in theory at least. If “The Real World” no longer has many meaningful things to say about a generation, the prolific “True Life” definitely still does, and this year MTV also received the first “Excellent” rating in the history of GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index which measures channels’ presentation of LGBT characters and issues.

One more point I’d like to address is the contention that a channel shouldn’t be acronymically calling itself “Music Television” if it isn’t about music. To that I say, you should only believe that if you believe AMC shouldn’t show “Mad Men” because it isn’t an “American Movie Classic” or that CBS shouldn’t show anything unrelated to Columbia Records music, since that was the origin of the name “Columbia Broadcasting System.”

Both of those channels, like MTV, realized they weren’t serving unique enough niches anymore, so they evolved. Just as, over the years, music consumers have evolved to embrace new technologies. Sometimes its messy, but I generally think that, in the end, evolution ends up benefiting everyone. I think even Justin Timberlake would agree with that.

Written by Dan Wohl

12.27.10 at 2:48 am

Shockin’ Through the Decades

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“Shock rock” is sort of a redundant term. Rock and roll has always been about pushing the envelope since…well, since whenever it began, an unanswerable question that is the subject of a particularly detailed and fascinating Wikipedia article.

Since the world has become comfortable with the idea of rock music, it’s taken a little more to qualify as what anyone would call shocking. Really, is anything shocking anymore? I don’t mean this as a joke. Even if you have never heard of nor wish to seek out the band Fartbarf, the album Carnivorous Erection or the song “Fecal Smothered Dildo Punishment,” I’d imagine it doesn’t truly startle you to know they exist. Feel free to Google them if you don’t believe me.

When a shocking band is out of sight and out of mind for all but the tiniest sliver of society, they haven’t really succeeded in shocking. So what of those musicians who are known to relatively many but still retain the reputation for shock? They tend to be iconoclastic, ego-driven individualists; they tend to have a keen sense of what kinds of shock appeal to mass audiences (themes of death and horror, for the most part) and they tend to have at least a tiny smidgen of actual talent (though not always).

These qualities make up a sector of popular music that has developed less as the domain of true shock and more into a semi-defined, not-always-shocking genre called shock rock. In honor of this, scariest month, I present this rundown of shock rockers throughout history.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (first record: 1956)

 

Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Most musical genres can’t trace their origins to a single individual (though some can). But the history of shock rock makes it seem reasonably clear that it began with one specific song: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Like most defining songs of original rock and roll,  it straddles the border with rhythm & blues, and has been covered over and over by obvious antecedents and others as well.

The song was originally meant to be a straightforward ballad. It only ended up in the grunting, shrieking, animalistic way it did because both Hawkins and his band recorded the final take in a drunken stupor that he didn’t remember the next day. It was only then that Jay Hawkins became Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the world was left to wonder once again whether the course of history would have been different had a small group of people not gotten wasted at the precise time they did.

Hawkins also originated a key component of shock rock by opening his act by coming out of coffins, wearing a cape and carrying around a skull-on-a-stick sidekick named “Henry.” Hawkins never came close to replicating the success of “I Put a Spell on You,” but because of that one song and the decades-long career it afforded him, everyone on this list owes him a debt of gratitude.

Screaming Lord Sutch (first record: 1961)

 

Screaming Lord Sutch

The parallels between Hawkins and Sutch don’t end with having names implying an inclination to utter loud piercing cries. Both were, in their own unusual ways, on the cusp of a significant movement in the development of rock and roll—Hawkins with the gradual breaking-off from African American rhythm & blues, Sutch with the British Invasion—and both were famous primarily for one, oft-covered song.

For Sutch, that song was “Jack the Ripper,” and the song’s subject matter (not to mention Sutch’s caped, top hatted image) established the Victorian motif that would inform much future shock rock. This live performance from 1964 is incredibly surreal to me. The screams of British teenage girls are a familiar emblem of the black-and-white rockin’ ’60s, but how often do we see them elicited not by happiness but by something resembling actual revulsion?

Sutch might be the campiest figure on this list, and he has a few other good songs that stray far into Bobby “Boris” Pickett territory. It’s difficult to find and kind of truly dark undertone to his songs, which is sadly ironic considering he hung himself at age 58.

Arthur Brown (first record: 1968)

 

Arthur Brown

Another shock rock progenitor, another one-hit wonder. For Arthur Brown and his band, the quaintly named Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the song was “Fire,” which was a #1 hit in the U.K. in 1968. Someone might prove me wrong, but as far as I can tell, Brown was the first musician to wear bright white-and-black “corpsepaint”-style makeup, which is really pretty significant, when you consider the wide spectrum of later artists who wore it.

I also get the feeling that Brown was the first shock rocker to introduce a level of true menace to his delivery. Hawkins and Sutch were more in your face, but I get more of a sense of creeping dread from Brown. He conducted himself not like a deranged, creepy outsider, but more like a supernatural presence—the “God of Hellfire” as he put it—which is another hallmark of future shock rock.

The alarmingly D.I.Y.-looking pyrotechnic device attached to Brown’s head in the video led to some extremely predictable incidents. For instance, at one show, the inflammable fluid spilled onto his head as he was being lifted to the stage by a crane, and his hair was, as the song puts it, taken to burn. The situation was dealt with in a very rock-and-roll manner when a quick thinking-fan doused the flames with a pint of beer. Not sure if the ordeal took Brown to learn (not to do that anymore). I can’t decide if this is hilarious or an indication of him having been really kind of crazy, but one way or another Brown definitely pushed the genre further.

Alice Cooper (first record: 1969)

 

Alice Cooper, with early bandmates

We’re now moving away from progenitors and toward some people who should and actually finally might get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Alice Cooper is one of those celebrities who seems to weirdly get more prominent as he gets older, but he wasn’t always the Wayne-and-Garth educating, golf-obsessed, evangelical conservative Republican he became. Come to think of it, he probably was, but the world just didn’t know it.

What it did know at Alice’s inception was that Alice Cooper was a band, not an individual. When the erstwhile Vince Furnier assumed the Alice moniker for himself (apparently a ouija board told him he was the incarnation of a 17th century witch by that name) and wrestled the copyright for it away from his bandmates, he established two shock rock precedents with one fell swoop: a combination of mild transvestism with hyper-machismo, and an ego too large to accept peers.

(His former bandmates have gone on to other things, and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention drummer Neal Smith, whose website describes him as a “Rock N Realtor” and has an intro stating, “Over 25,000,000 albums: SOLD. Over $25,000,000 in real estate: SOLD.” Check it out yourself.)

Cooper’s catalog contains some bona-fide non-shocking classics and a bevy of very good ones that tend to combine horror (at varying levels of camp) with intense libidinousness. As he has gotten older and become a sort of scary-music mascot, one might expect his music to have mellowed, but on the contrary, his lyrics seem to have gotten somehow more controversial as he blows past 50 and 60.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’d like to give him credit for trying to stay bold and commenting on current events (that song was written in response to the Columbine shootings). But the lyrics are so atrocious that I can’t, and furthermore, the contrast with his new-found family friendly image makes songs like that seem incredibly fake, too. There’s no denying, however, that Alice Cooper was the first shock rock superstar, and I’ll always appreciate him for that, even if he puts out a promotional single about drinking donkey blood with all proceeds going to the Tea Party Express.

Ozzy Osbourne (first record: 1970)

 

Ozzy Osbourne

What’s the opposite of a soft spot in your heart? Whatever it is, I have it for Ozzy. I feel weird admitting that since he was the original frontman for one of the most skull-meltingly awesome and influential bands in the history of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, where his singing was acceptable enough to not get in the way of Tony Iommi and company. But I often have wondered—and I hope I don’t get death threats for saying this—how good the band would have been had a singer of the quality of the late, far-beyond-great Ronnie James Dio been with them from the beginning.

Ozzy didn’t really become a shock rocker until he became a solo act. As you can see, this is something of a pattern. Most of the incidents he’s most notorious for—biting the head off a dove, drunkenly urinating on the Alamo memorial in Texas, biting off the head off a bat (that he once claimed he thought was rubber, and that he claimed another time bit him, necessitating rabies shots)—happened after he left Sabbath.

I’ve just never gotten much out of Ozzy other than a party animal with an exceedingly average voice who sometimes likes to wear heavy eyeliner. I see “Crazy Train” as a great 30 second intro that is ideal for a baseball player’s walk-up song followed by four minutes of total stock. I see “Mr. Crowley” (and most of Ozzy’s attempts to delve into the occult) as corniness that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place on a Spinal Tap album.

I actually think one of Ozzy’s best solo songs is “Suicide Solution,” which is a legitimately nuanced and interesting take on alcoholism. The song is a warning that regularly drinking to excess is a form of slow, torturous suicide. But of course, this is the song that more than one dead teenager’s parents have sued him over. Ozzy knew his song wasn’t really at all about suggesting kids kill themselves. But when he titled it as he did, did he have this ensuing controversy in the back of his mind? Knowing his penchant for shock without the substance to back it up, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Kiss (First Record: 1973)

 

Kiss

I was planning to only include individuals on this list, since the ego-driven solo artist seems to be the shock rock archetype. But I realized there was no way I could exclude the band that began when an art major named Stanley Eisen met an Israeli-born elementary school teacher named Chaim Witz in Queens.

From a commercial standpoint, Kiss is the perfect shock rock band. They wear strange makeup, they spit blood and fire and play a bass shaped like an axe. But they combine all this with a catalog of songs that is almost painfully inoffensive. Their most famous song‘s lyrics could have been sung by Bill Haley. Yes, there was a brief rumor when they came out that KISS stood for “Knights in Satan’s Service,” but there’s no way in hell (pun definitely intended) that anyone could think that today.

What this sterilized version of shock rock has produced is a repugnant merchandising empire that has weirdly overshadowed the band’s music. But when it comes down to it, while they don’t have a deep collection of hits, they have a few that are pretty damn great. Vacuous and musically simpler than most punk songs, but great. I’m happy to take a visualless Kiss mp3 now and again, but personally I’ll let them keep the condom, the coffeehouse, the licensed professional wrestler and the casket. Sorry, “kasket.”

Grace Jones (first record: 1976)

 

Grace Jones

You can’t really call Grace Jones a shock “rocker.” But her brand of shock pop/disco/new wave introduced the important concept that mainstream shock didn’t have to come from themes of horror or death. Take for example the cover of her second-highest charting album, which features a title that would shock Al Sharpton, a flattop that would shock Kenny Walker and a mouth that would shock the ice cream truck guy in “Legion.”

As you can tell in this video when she wears an enormous Keith Haring dress or Andy Warhol declares that “Grace is perfect,” Jones enmeshed herself into the ’80s avant garde like few other musical artists. She appeared on talk shows wearing enormous orange turbans and gold masks. But at the same time, she appeared in “Conan the Destroyer” and played a salacious, steroidal henchwoman in the James Bond film “A View to a Kill.” She wasn’t tied to any cultural movement as much as she was committed to subverting cultural norms, which was a brilliant calculation for someone who came along right as the world was becoming a bit more shockproof.

In my opinion Jones’ musical output, which is heavy on covers, is a bit inconsistent—I think her version of “Warm Leatherette,” for instance, pales compared to the original, while others are outstanding. But her achievement was not in music or film but in image. She ushered in a new kind of art-and-fashion based shock that reflects in pop to this day and has scarcely ever needed to employ a drop of fake blood. (Well, almost.)

GG Allin (first record: 1977)

GG Allin

GG Allin has the unique distinction of being the only person on this list whose birth name was weirder than their stage name: His name at birth was Jesus Christ Allin. He was born and raised in a no-electricity, no-running water New Hampshire log cabin with a sociopathic religious maniac father who regularly abused his wife and children. And this incredibly sad and evil upbringing produced a person who was, unfortunately, plenty evil in his own right.

Grace Jones’ revelation was that you could attain shock value by subverting cultural norms rather than literally shocking people. Allin was the opposite. There were no homages to old horror movies at his shows. There was literal horror. A typical GG Allin show would feature him stripping naked, committing self-harm, producing every kind of human waste (sometimes, proceeding to consume it) and engaging in violent physical or sexual acts with audience members.

Allin repeatedly promised to top all these by eventually committing suicide onstage, but he died of a drug overdose before he could. I have to admit that his funeral was twistedly poetic: As he lay in repose, his friends plastered stickers on his casket, jammed drugs and whiskey down his lifeless throat, took pictures of themselves touching his penis, and generally treated his bloated, fetid corpse with the same disrespect he treated everyone in life. The consensus was that that was how he would have wanted it.

There are those who hold Allin up as a paragon of individualist punk ethos. But by the end of his career, it seems obvious to me that what he really was was an extreme narcissist who was quite deluded about both the extent of his influence and the consistency of his philosophy. It was his need for attention that led him to take shock rock to its logical extreme. He recorded a few songs, but I’m sure even he knew he was never going to be remembered for his musical talent. For better or for worse, he proved that one can be remembered for shock alone.

Rob Zombie (first record: 1987)

 

Rob Zombie

I think it’s possible that Rob Zombie does not get as much respect as he deserves. Paying homage to horror films of the past, campy or otherwise, is a tradition as old as Bauhaus and the Misfits. But I think it was with Zombie, with his band White Zombie and in his later solo career, that it really reached its apogee.

Take, for instance, “Dragula” (named after the Munsters’ car), which I think, in contrast to some of the hard rock my peers and I liked in the late ’90s, holds up exceedingly well today. I feel like this song and video are masterpieces of cinematic schlock-homage. I especially appreciate the fact that Zombie doesn’t seem too self-serious about it, if his “Night at the Roxbury”-style head pump while cruising in the dragula is any indication.

His horror fixation extends beyond exploitation movies; one of my favorite music videos of all time is his one that emulates a silent film. And his old band White Zombie had some pretty bangin’ hits of their own (although I have always thought that the lyric I originally thought it was—”more human, that’s what you’ve been”—would have been cooler).

I think Rob Zombie is the first artist on this list I’d think of as a shock rocker more as a genre label than for someone who generated any actual shock in their time, which is reflected in how the public views the types of films he derives his image from. He’s also more of a multimedia magnate than anyone on this list, as he has branched out to become an in-demand (if not particularly good) film director. (In that vein, there’s also an odd spinoff-like element at work in the fact that what he is to horror, his younger, less-popular brother tries to be to sci-fi.) Zombie might not be high on shock, but ironically, he seems more enmeshed than anyone in the culture and history of what shocks people.

Kembra Pfahler (first record: 1990)

Kembra Pfahler with bandmates

Kembra Pfahler is probably the least well known artist on this list, but I really wanted to bring her up for two reasons. One, I think the picture at left is the most shocking one I saw in my research for this post. And two, she seems to me to be a remarkable synthesis of different shock rock elements. She combines Zombie’s midnight movie motif with Jones’ avant garde artistry with Allin’s transgressiveness with a mastery of makeup and presentation that outstrips almost anyone.

Most of Pfahler’s music has been recorded with her band, the marvelously named Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (named for the cult icon), who have an array of camp horror-inspired songs with titles like “Chopsley: Rabid Bikini Model” and “Do You Miss My Head” as well as some quite transformative covers. And her music, image and overall presentation is accepted as avant garde art in a way that few musical artists are; she was featured, for instance, during the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

Most (though not all) of Pfahler’s music actually tends to be pretty straightforward and inoffensive relative to her image, but she more than makes up for it with some of her transgressive performance art pieces that would probably have given pause even to GG Allin (who she recorded with, by the way). She’s known, for instance, for cracking eggs on her vulva. Which really only sounds intense if you don’t know that she once literally sewed her vagina shut. (It would seem clear that this was some sort of protest against objectification, yet she also posed for Penthouse in this condition, so count me as confused.)

Finally, it’s also worth nothing that Pfahler is something of a cosmetological celebrity, having appeared at several makeup-industry events. And I think you get a good sense of the concept of shock rock in general when you see a crowd of calm fashion types watch her sing about “suck[ing] the shit out of your ass” while completely naked and covered in red paint (all of those things are in this video, if you care to witness them). I love the idea of someone like her being a cosmetics spokeswoman, even though you’d figure nearly every potential consumer is not looking to get as extreme as her. Sort of like SUV commercials highlighting towing capacity when most suburban buyers will never know the difference. The bottom line is, when it comes down to it, who is makeup more crucial to than shock rockers?

Marilyn Manson (first record: 1994)

 

Marilyn Manson

If such things could be quantified, I think Marilyn Manson would have had one of the highest name recognition-to-knowledge of his music ratios in music history. It’s hard to imagine any American who was alive in the ’90s not recognizing his name, and his reputation for evil, for being the “Antichrist Superstar” as he himself put it. In an amazing feat of vocabularic gymnastics, Joe Lieberman managed to convey, at the same time, both the horror that conservative parents had for him and the enthusiasm his youthful fanbase had for him when he declared the band to be “the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company.”

Yet, I sense his music remained invisible to most. I blame Manson himself completely for this, as his bible-ripping antics and album covers depicting himself as a hermaphroditic nude extraterrestrial were part of an overwhelming strategy of shock. But what separated him from older shock rockers, who some jaded music fans said he was simply a rehash of? For me one answer is a sense of humor. Manson had none of Ozzy’s partying spirit or Alice’s joie de mourir. Manson presented himself as a truly grim figure, and with his rod-straight hair, pasty makeup and everpresent weird contact lens, he looked considerably more alien. I only know of one press photo-type picture of him smiling, and it’s not exactly what you’d call humanizing.

In recent years Manson has become more accessible (sometimes in rather inexplicable ways). But I think it’s too bad that his extreme image turned off so many from his music, which is in some instances quite interesting in my opinion, and also can be quite different from what most people think of when they think of him. The album that launched him to stardom, Antichrist Superstar, is full of the goth-ish, pseudo-sacrilegious stuff everyone remembers like the still-powerful song whose title references the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man”. But I think his next album Mechanical Animals, a glam, Warholian meditation on fame and popular culture, is masterful, and I still listen to songs on it like “The Speed of Pain” and the title track.

Until not too recently I used to wonder if, given how severe his look was, Manson could possibly age gracefully. Then one day I looked up and realize I’m already sort of getting an answer. As his look wears off and his days as conservative America’s worst nightmare recede ever farther into the past, I’m sure Manson the public figure will fade more and more into obscurity, which I’m perfectly fine with. But I think his work deserves to be remembered.

Lady Gaga (first record: 2008)

Lady Gaga

What past musical artist is Lady Gaga most like? Lots of people have opinions. Madonna? Seems obvious enough. Bowie? It’s written right on her face. And the name “Lady Gaga” is a reference to a Queen song.

Of course, all of these are right. But I also want to suggest that, much like dinosaurs evolving into birds, she is the seemingly incongruous descendant of everyone on this list. The most clear precedent is Grace Jones, and Jones herself certainly agrees. But she also maintains the pointless religious iconography, the obsession with celebrity and the practice of looking bizarre in public that many shock rockers, and I’d say in particular Manson, share.

She’s actually already done a forced-sounding remix with him (I’d love to know what a real song by the two of them would sound like). And just like Manson graduated from subverting norms to grand, conceptual shock weirdness, Gaga seems to have definitely done the same.

Manson flamed out quickly, and that makes me wonder if Gaga will too. My feeling is that her brand of non-horrific shock will work for a lot longer. And even though it has seemed for decades that the genre is close to the end, I sense that somehow or other shock rock will work for a lot longer too.



Fascinating Art, Unobjectionable Fare, Lazy Garbage and Artistic Terrorism: A Sampling

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Biz Markie, whose song "Alone Again" was the subject of the lawsuit that fundamentally altered the direction of hip hop.

I remember very well the first time I became aware of sampling in music. “Wild Wild West” had just come out, and I had the CD with Will Smith’s tie-in song. I put it on and my dad said it sounded exactly like “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder. He was right. I Googled it (actually, in those days, I probably Alta Vista’d or Excite’d it) and discovered the truth. The reason the two songs sounded so alike was that “Wild Wild West” sampled “I Wish”; meaning the producers of the former paid the copyright holders of the latter to, basically, rip it off.

And so began my long and fraught relationship with this now-pervasive element of popular music composition. My gut reaction to a song that bluntly samples an older song is intense. I hurt. I feel physically ill. I am dumbfounded by its audacity. And I can’t believe we let them get away with it.

When I say that I can’t believe musical artists get away with it, I mean it in an artistic sense, not a legal sense. Working at ASCAP, I’m well aware that there is an established legal framework for sampling that most producers who do it follow. But it wasn’t always this way. One of the reasons sampling arose in the hip hop scene of the late ’70s was precisely because hip hop began in an environment that didn’t worry at all about copyright issues. Until the Sugarhill Gang set hip hop slowly but surely down the path of commercialization and world domination, the genre was nowhere to be found on records, but exclusive to parties in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. You had to be there to experience it. Recording hip hop tracks was barely a thought then, because, perhaps uniquely among pop music styles, hip hop music evolved out of something that wasn’t really definable as “music” at all; namely, rapping with existing music happening to play in the background.

Raymond "Gilbert" O'Sullivan, whose song "Alone Again (Naturally)" was sampled in Biz's song.

It was only when DJs began to get more creative with the backing tracks they spinned for MCs, scratching, looping, blending songs together, that hip hop began to establish itself as its own musical style. As hip hop records started to be made and gain mainstream popularity throughout the ’80s, copyright issues continued to be ignored (since there was no law on the books covering sampling yet) which allowed DJs to get ever more creative. Late ’80s and early ’90s hip hop, led by producers like Public Enemy’s The Bomb Squad, featured some dizzyingly complex multimedia tornadoes that could sample dozens of songs (or films, comedy routines, news broadcasts, etc.) and, in my opinion, did not give any sense of anything being ripped off, had plenty of artistic merit on their own, and had little in common with the kind of sampling that later became the norm.

What changed?

To make a long story short, copyright law caught up with what was going on, and the legal verdict was not favorable to samplers. In a landmark case concerning a Biz Markie song that sampled a Gilbert O’Sullivan one, a federal court in New York’s ruling set a precedent establishing that any unlicensed sampling could be considered copyright infringement. The case had a seismic effect on hip hop production. Now that producers were facing the prospect of paying royalties to everyone they sampled—not to mention the time-consuming process of securing licenses from all of them—most producers figured songs built on complex layers of many samples were just not worth the time, effort or money.

Some producers didn’t stop sampling, though; they just refocused their efforts onto much fewer samples at a time, making the sampling songs sound much more like the sampled ones. And although this type of song did exist before, this is what led us to the current preponderance of lazy, detestable songs like the ones I highlighted earlier.

So, my gut reaction is to say I hate sampling because of the examples that insult my intelligence as a music consumer, expecting me to either be unfamiliar with, or indifferent toward the repurposing of, classics like “I Wish” or “Tainted Love,” or (for God’s sake!) “Eleanor Rigby.” I shouldn’t emphasize the classic nature of some sampled songs though; I might argue that it’s even worse to heavily sample a more unknown track and hoodwink the listener into thinking it’s original.

But, I can’t condemn all of today’s sampling as bad, because I have to admit I find some of it acceptable to me as a listener and even quite interesting sometimes. Truly fascinating, in the case of “plunderphonics” groups like The Avalanches, who brave the legal briar patch to construct albums made of literally thousands of obscure samples. (Check out this video for a rundown of some of the samples used in that song.) Melora Creager included a chilling vocal sample from a Nazi-era German opera recording in one of the songs I praised in my recent post about Rasputina, “Hunter’s Kiss,” a fact that I finally learned (after wondering for a long time) by asking her about it on FanBridge. And some mainstream rap songs that use only one sample, like, say, this one, I listen to and have no problem with.

I’ve thought long and hard about why some sampling doesn’t bother me and some makes me want to chop my ears off, and I have come up with what I think is a reasonably effective two-pronged test for what, for me, constitutes “acceptable” sampling. Compare “Hate It or Love It” with the sampled song. Listening to the two, you can tell their connection, but it isn’t particularly obvious. Cool & Dre, the production team who created “Hate It or Love It,” clearly didn’t just hear “Rubber Band” and decide they wanted to ape the melody wholesale. They found one section of the song, probably only about 5 seconds long, and carved another hook out of it. But at the same time, it’s obvious it’s a sample; they aren’t trying to pass it off as completely their creation, either.

In my mind, then, this song satisfied the two criteria I think need to be present for sampling to seem acceptable to me. It A, acknowledges that it is a sample, preserving the murky fidelity of the original and using a clear “looped” structure; and B, does something with the sample more than just xeroxing the riff altogether. There are songs that do A but not B, and there are also songs that manage to do B but not A, making it sound as if the rhythm did not come from another song, usually by dint of what’s called an interpolation (which means the original copyright holders are paid for the rights to the song, but the sampling artist doesn’t actually use the master recording; they just play it over however they want it).

After that, though, there are songs that might satisfy both conditions that I still can’t be okay with. I am always disturbed by songs in which the singer/rapper interacts with the vocal element of the sampled song. I highly doubt that when Michael Karoli of Can—who has, by the way, been dead for years—sung the phrase “drunky hot bowls” he felt fine with the idea that years later Kanye West would condition you to hear him say “drunk and hot girls” instead. That makes me feel very weird, and reminds me of something else I am deeply troubled by: commercials featuring dead celebrities through the digital manipulation of old footage.

Along those lines, there is one condition that will make any sampling automatically horrendous in my mind: Any song that insults the sampled song or artist. There are famous examples; that one is insulting, as far as I’m concerned, just because I consider it an act of artistic terrorism to push peoples’ associations with something like “Annie” to be even a little bit closer to the line “If you with me mama rub on ya’ tits.” And there are other examples that literally make fun of the original artist. “Whatever she said, then I’m that.” To me that sounds like, “Whatever she said, hahaha! Can you believe this dumb woman who I am making money off of sings in a language I don’t know?” Also, if you make it to the end of the video, you can see that Erick babblingly imitates/mocks the Hindi vocals. Predictably, the joke is on Erick: The line, which was taken from here, translates as, “If someone wants to commit suicide, what can you do?”

What I can do is try to avoid this stuff. Hopefully someday, that will be easier to do than it is now.

I’m Saying That There’s Nobody Meaner (Than The Not-That-Old Lady From Rasputina)

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Rasputina frontwoman Melora Creager, circa 1996.

Most reviews I’ve read of Rasputina albums, such as this rather unexpected piece in the Wall Street Journal, seem to focus on the band’s pillaging of obscure history for song subjects. The standard angle on Rasputina is that they are a less cheerful, less guitar-driven, less male version of They Might Be Giants. And although that statement might be sort of true, I think Rasputina means a lot more than that.

Anyone familiar with my former radio show knows that I’m a big fan of what you might call “dark” music. The truly evil stuff frightens me some of the time and makes me laugh most of the time, but isn’t really my bag; I’m more of an Addams Family/Haunted Mansion person when it comes to what kind of “dark” aesthetic I love. But it doesn’t mean I want it to be a complete joke. Rasputina are among my favorite bands ever: they can be incredibly creepy but also hilarious, often simultaneously, and they have an exceedingly unusual sound for a rock band to boot.

What I’m referring to is the fact that there isn’t a guitar or bass to be found on any Rasputina recording; their primary instrument is the cello. I also want to note that much like Nine Inch Nails or the Streets, calling Rasputina a “band” or using the pronoun “they” when referring to it is basically a formality; the only constant member is former Ultra Vivid Scene member and Nirvana touring cellist Melora Creager, who is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the musical geniuses of the ’00s.

Melora/Rasputina’s new album, Sister Kinderhook, which was recorded with new bandmates Daniel DeJesus (second cello) and Catie D’Amica (drums), came out a few weeks ago. You can listen to the first single, “Holocaust of Giants,” here. Melora seems to have come to that inevitable point in every pop musician’s life when, like a salmon swimming upstream to its birthplace, they feel the urge to “return to their roots.” This is definitely the most uncomplicated Rasputina recording since their 1996 debut Thanks for the Ether. There is little novelty on this crisp, streamlined album beyond cellos playing rock music, which, let’s face it, has been pretty novel the whole time.

Rasputina’s use of the cello is in no way a gimmick. Using it as their (almost) exclusive melody instrument gives their music an anachronistic quality that does more to establish a gothic, steampunkish feel than most lyrics could. I know of no other band who have corralled this grand instrument as affectingly as they have into the framework of rock. (There is one possible exception, but their non-Metallica cover material is lackluster in my opinion.)

I don’t mean to say that I disregard Melora’s lyrics or singing as unimportant. I think “Holocaust of Giants” is a perfect example of her talent in those areas. When she sings, “The Bible speaks of this / There were giants in our midst / But they slaughtered one another in a meaningless war, / Thank your lucky stars that we don’t do that anymore,” she proves in one four-bar sequence to be incredibly adept at writing complex verse structure, tailoring her vibrato voice to fit her music, and, indeed, her aforementioned penchant for obscure history.

Rasputina's current lineup (L to R): Melora Creager, Daniel DeJesus and Catie D'Amica.

Most gothic or otherwise dark and creepy pop cultural movements are significantly informed by one historical era or another. On the surface, “Goth convention” and “Victorian cosplayers meetup” have often been basically synonyms. And even the Misfits and other horror punk bands were obsessed with a specific historical aesthetic, namely horror films from the ’50s and earlier. Why is this? The conventional wisdom would be that these scenes are primarily a form of romanticism, a depressing wistfulness for a mythical past that never existed.

I think the explanation is simpler than that. I think the essence of Gothic culture is in understanding, accepting, and in some cases celebrating, the grim realities of humanity. In this context, human history is not something to be either outrun or returned to; it is simply the most detailed story of the unchanging facts of human nature. For someone who follows this philosophy, history doesn’t inform art; it is art.

In this way, the mere trappings of a historical period are enough to set a song down the path of effective scary goodness. So, while I’m a big fan of historical minutiae myself, I actually think some of Rasputina’s most compelling songs are those that don’t obsess over it. Take two songs from my favorite Rasputina album, 2002’s Cabin Fever!, which was a brief foray into electronica-inspired production.

First, “Thimble Island,” which, like “Holocaust of Giants,” is a great example of Melora’s lyrical dexterity: “I’ve not heard of girls returning / It is a murky mystery place / I may not have had much book learning / But I’ve got charms to win the race.” Again, the intensity of mood and setting that comes across in this very short excerpt is, to me, astounding. By using phrases like “I’ve not” and referencing “book learning” she establishes an old fashioned feeling, and throughout the song, the subtle hints that Thimble Island may be a good deal more sinister than the singer believes are everywhere.

The last Rasputina song I want to mention is from the same album; it’s called “Hunter’s Kiss” and it’s just about the creepiest song I have ever heard. It’s true that a deer being shot is not the least disturbing subject matter imaginable. But the way Melora turns the event into profoundly demented psychosexual soap opera is impressive. It proves that real-life horrors can be just as twisted and unsettling as supernatural ones, and that an extra-dry sense of humor might be the best way of exposing this fact.

In this interview, Melora says that “fame is not a good thing; it’s bad for people. So maybe I haven’t wanted it too much.” I think that had Rasputina been just a tad more accessible during their formative years, they could have been pretty big. As this fascinating Billboard article (on the bottom left of the page) from 1998 proves, early in their career Columbia Records agreed. Rasputina went on tour with Marilyn Manson in an attempt to make them into the next Goth superstars, and even a slick MTV-ified music video was produced. Personally I would have loved to have seen them get more recognition, but it’s clear that Melora is content with Rasputina’s trajectory from major label prospect to self-published indie darling. She knows the music is the most important thing. And for me at least, Rasputina’s music will be important for a very long time.

Written by Dan Wohl

07.12.10 at 11:18 am