Archive for January, 2013

[50/50] Song #48: “Sausalito Summernight”

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Song #48: “Sausalito Summernight”—Diesel (1981)

ford-custom-500-09Ahhh yes, the One-Hit Wonder. A band you’ve never heard of (and never will again) suddenly blasts out of your radio with a song made of pure earworm and instantly etches itself on a time and place. Such was “Sausalito Summernight,” which ironically peaked in the top 40 in the midst of a particularly cold winter my senior year in high school as I hauled around in a 1964 Ford Custom 500 I’d inherited from my grandfather. “The Tank” had a shitty transistor radio with speakers that blew out if you played it too loud — which was always the case when this tune came on — but I didn’t care. I had a car. I had a solid American car with a V8 engine that would go on to survive at least three crashes in a year, including the infamous drag race with Darrell Smith across the school parking lot. (A friend who was following us swears he saw the bottom of my car as I caromed off the low retaining wall that folded the right front wheel up into the engine block.) A tow job, a few replacement steering rods, and it was back in business. They don’t make them like that anymore.

They don’t make sweet, goofy songs like this any more either. Leave it to the Dutch to capture a perfectly American experience, the out-of-control road trip, with wailing rock ‘n’ roll guitar. While Diesel’s sole American hit had an infectious hook, clearly it was the lyrics that got to me, as it perfectly (and prophetically it turned out) captured my epic bad luck with cars.

[50/50] Video Game #18: Rampage

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Video Game #18: Rampage (1986)

rampageThe whole point of video games, it seems to me, is to do things you couldn’t normally do. Why bother playing a digital version of golf or bowling or hunting when you can go out and do that for reals? Now, blow up a planet, fly a starship, shoot someone in the head? — hello, arcade.

Few titles embodied this better than Rampage — the game where YOU are the giant monster destroying the city. You get to eat people, knock helicopters out of the sky, and smash buildings. Better yet, Rampage was a three-player game, so you and two buddies could trash the town. The game gave you the option of playing King Kong, Godzilla or a giant werewolf (or their cartoonish generic equivalent) in a scenario right out of a ’50s monster movie.

Level the entire town and you get to move on to the next level … where you get to crush even bigger buildings and eat more people. That’s it. But really, what more can you ask for from a game that let’s you play Godzilla?

[50/50] Comedy #18: “Booty Call” (1997)

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Comedy #18: “Booty Call” (1997)

A raunchy movie about safe sex? Sure, why not. Jamie Foxx nails it, with the help of scenes like this. So wrong it’s the right thing to do.

[50/50] Short Story #18: “The Property of a Lady”

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Short Story #18: “The Property of a Lady” — Ian Fleming (1963)

What, you thought it was all going to be sci-fi?

black-007“The Property of a Lady” was one of Ian Fleming’s last short stories to be published, and has James Bond … going to an auction. That’s it. No shootouts, no seductions, no supervillains — just secret agent 007 as part of a counter-espionage team quietly and carefully taking down a spy network by … paying attention to details.

There was a time when I was obsessed with the James Bond movies — partially because of their pop culture cache, but mostly (I deduced later) because my parents wouldn’t let us go seem them when we were growing up. They were forbidden, taboo — and therefore of course irresistibly alluring. Eventually I saw all the Bond movies, some multiple times, and finally came to realize they were all pretty much ridiculous.*

The books on the other hand … the books are a fascinating time capsule of the Cold War, and for all the over-the-top plotting of the various megalomaniacs intent on world domination, Ian Fleming’s spy novels are constructed on a  substrate of actual spy craft, meticulous detail and procedure. Fleming’s greatest creation isn’t even supposed to be an interesting person. The author once described James Bond as “an extremely dull man to whom things happened.”

Among all the martini-shaking, product placement, explosions and Bond girls, this got lost along the way (although the one film that holds up great as a movie, and a Bond film — 2006’s “Casino Royale” — is the one that also adheres the closest to Ian Fleming’s original novel.)

*Except for the music composed by John Barry. That’s still fucking awesome.

[50/50] Album #16: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Album #16: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — Eurythmics (1983)

annielennoxThe orange hair. Oh god the orange hair.

I’m skipping ahead in the countdown this week, because today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — the second album from the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, and the one that put them on the map in every way imaginable.

Thanks to that shock of orange hair and the music video — which seemed to run every hour on MTV that summer — the title single went to number one. While Lennox’s androgynous style and edgy beauty helped sell their videos, it was her powerful voice and Stewart’s soulful synth pop that made them so much more. Over the next few years they would go on to have ten top 40 hits.

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the album, has aged much better than the dadaesque video of the same name — although it’s still a lot of fun, in that goofy early MTV style.

The second hit off the record and its subsequent video, “Love is a Stranger,” continued to push the krautrock/cyberpunk/S&M vibe of early Eurythmics (which would eventually reach its pinnacle the next year with the infamous “1984” soundtrack.) Whatever you think about the music or the pair’s style however, it is impossible to take your eyes off Annie Lennox’s eyes.

The rest of the album is just as moody and evocative, full of Stewart’s driving basslines and Lennox’s primitive yelps and bitten-off snarls. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” still has such an immediacy, it’s hard to believe it’s already 30 years old.

Bonus round: Eurythmics’ music was so deeply entwined with Annie Lennox’s voice, there have been few good covers of their material … however, I am partial to Emily Browning’s take on “Sweet Dreams” for the Sucker Punch soundtrack. Here’s a fan mashup of the single with the scene from the movie where the dragon fights the B-24 bomber.

[50/50] Song #49: “Children of the Revolution”

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Maggie_riding a hooverbikeSong #49: “Children of the Revolution” — Violent Femmes (1986)

There had to be at least one T. Rex song on this list. I considered “20th Century Boy” before deciding to go with “Children of the Revolution.” Specifically the Violent Femmes cover of “Children of the Revolution.” The Marc Bolan original is arguably better, but I heard the Femmes version first and preferred its uptempo take. Plus, it still manages to keep both the song’s irony and its sensuality with Gordon Gano’s guttural howls.

I was reading a lot of Love & Rockets at the time, and for some reason thought the Violent Femmes version would make the PERFECT song to play over the opening credits of a Love & Rockets film, as Maggie the Mechanic zipped across the desert on her hoverbike (back when the series was still mixing sci-fi and dinosaurs with Lucha Libre wrestlers and life in East L.A.) Of course, now I realize what a mismatch that is for a L&R … not that a movie version will ever get made. Still, it’s nice to imagine…

“Twist & shout/Let it all hang out”

[50/50] Video Game #19: Tail Gunner

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Video Game #19: Tail Gunner (1979)*

Tail_GunnerAnother space shooter, Tail Gunner put you in the back seat of starship where you had to fend off wave after wave of starfighters intent on blowing up your ride. Unlike the many pixel-based games that came to dominate the arcade in the 1980s, Tail Gunner was vector-based, using straight lines generated by electron beams to create objects. The glowing wireframe images certainly made you feel as if you were playing in a high-tech computer, and lent itself very well to space settings, as you will see.

I actually missed this game when it first came out and only discovered it years later in a forgotten corner of the massive arcade at Hersheypark, the summer I worked there. The amusement park had been collecting video and pinball games for decades, and with each new generation of releases, older titles were pushed further and further back into the building. The version they had — virtually the only one I ever saw, in any arcade anywhere — was a large enclosed cockpit with the joystick and controls on the side of the gunner’s chair. This unusual set up made Tail Gunner particularly challenging, and immersive in way few video games were at the time.

[50/50] Comedy #19: “The Pink Panther Strikes Again”

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Comedy #19: “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” (1976)

Inspector_ClouseauOf “all the movies we love to quote,” this one is up there as the one of the quotiest. From how to order a room in German to what to say when you smash a priceless Steinway, “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” will prepare you for any situation where misunderstanding, insanity and massive amounts of property damage are expected.

The fourth in the Pink Panther series, the comedy raises slapstick to a lethal level — literally, in this case, as a hit is put out on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and dozens of assassins attempt to take out the bumbling detective. Cartoonish violence ensues. It shouldn’t work but it does. Of all the movies Sellers made with director Blake Edwards, this is the funniest. Come to think of it, they probably should have stopped after “Strikes Again.” After all, it’s tough to top scenes like this one, when Clouseau’s faithful manservant Cato ambushes his master in a daily attempt to keep the Inspector’s “combat skills” razor sharp:

[50/50] Short Story #19: “Spew”

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Short Story #19: “Spew” — Neal Stephenson (1994)

circuit boardBack in its heyday, Wired rarely ran fiction —but it made an exception for Neal Stephenson’s “Spew.” Put it on the cover, in fact. Ostensibly a cyberpunk story about hackers in the near future, it has proven surprisingly prophetic regarding social media and the way it mines for our personal data.

“Spew” follows a tech-savvy slacker who’s hired as a cool hunter by a major media corp to find the next big thing — only the author never stoops to such lame jargon because he’s Neal-fucking-Stephenson. For all it’s hep terminology and ironic detachment however, the story is a fundamentally sad one, a cautionary tale about desire and technology, and the culture shock one experiences when aging out of a desirable demographic. Most importantly, “Spew” reminds you that corporations, no matter how hard they try, can never truly bottle youth — or happiness.

You could track down an old copy of Wired magazine on eBay, or you can go read an online copy here.

[50/50] Album #49: “The Stranger”

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Album #49: “The Stranger” — Billy Joel (1977)

the-wall-gerald-scarfeI was genuinely surprise to see the competition for this next slot. There was never any question “The Sound of Sight” would be on this list, or that it would kick off the countdown, so this position was the last opening for those records on the bubble. Should I pick Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” the angsty rock opera with mind-bending album art by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, or another favorite with an iconic cover: Electric Light Orchestra’s “Out of the Blue.” Or do I choose another high concept album, Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless,” whose forlorn reverb kept me company many a late night in the studio during art school.

Thestranger1977Finally, I decided to go with Billy Joel’s breakthrough album, “The Stranger.” You have to understand, while I always enjoyed Joel’s lounge act just fine, he was THE all-time favorite of my brother the pianist. (In fact, in a famous bit of family lore, my parents had to talk Brent out of quitting school and running off to New York to play piano in a bar just like Billy Joel did!) Even if Billy Joel’s singles weren’t ubiquitous in the Top 40 at the time, he was in heavy rotation in our house. Of all of his albums, “The Stranger” finds Joel at his pop-music best, before his high-minded ambitions outstripped his song-writting abilities in the 1980s. And as an awkward eighth grader trying to figure out girls, I greatly appreciated the double-sided coin of “Vienna” and “Only the Good Die Young” Joel tossed to listeners.

While I eventually grew tired of rock operas, even the very idea of rock operas, I still love the pop operetta Joel serves up in his “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”