Archive for April, 2013

[50/50] Album #39: Led Zeppelin IV

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Album #39: Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

Zoso.svgIn the only real music debate I ever had with Grayson Currin, our music editor at the Independent, he expressed disappointment when I said Led Zeppelin IV was their best album. “What? III is the better record,” he replied authoritatively, standing in the lunch room while waiting for the microwave to ding. Sure, I agreed, Led Zep III IS the better record — but IV is still my favorite. He shrugged dismissively, as if to say, how can you base an argument on that?

Soaked in Tolkien references and faux mysticism, the band’s fourth studio album marked their transformation from a mere British blues-rock group to LED ZEPPELIN; by the time we caught up with them in the mid-70’s they had already become the bloated rock leviathans “Spinal Tap” would eventually so accurately mock, yet at the time it was still new to us, and my brother and I proudly wore our Zoso t-shirts until they shredded.

Led_Zeppelin_-_Officially released with no title — and adorned only with medieval drawings, a strange photo of a woodsman, and the aforementioned runes — Led Zep IV suffered from the collective scorn of having “Stairway to Heaven” as one of its tracks, even as it ensured it would be Zeppelin’s best selling album ever. But IV was also the home of “Black Dog,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” Rock and Roll,” “Going to California” and other songs that are still in heavy rotation on a radio station somewhere, probably this very minute.

While overexposure has no doubt worn IV’s welcome thin, it still has one song that calls out to me — literally. At about the 1:36 mark in “The Battle of Evermore” — Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s ultimate fantasy mashup — a clash of voices in the chorus conspire to sound like someone is saying “JP?” I first noticed this, back in the misty days of middle school, while listening to the track through headphones. Thinking my mom was calling me from the kitchen, I took off the headphones and went to see what she wanted. It went something like this.

“Yeah, mom?”

“What, dear.”

“Didn’t you just call me?”

“Nope.”

“OK.”

I went back to my dad’s office, where all his recording equipment was set up, and started the song over. Again, I heard my mom yell for me from the kitchen.

“What.”

“What?”

“I just heard you call my name.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Are you sure? I heard you yell ‘JP'”

“No, I’m sure.”

“Oookay.”

Again I went back and put on the headphones — and there it was clear as day. In the chorus, you can hear two voices collide in something that sounds almost exactly like “JP?” … I lifted the needle again and again to try and isolate the sound. “JP?… JP? …JP! … JP!?” — Suddenly, my mom ripped off the headphones.

“HEY! I’VE BEEN CALLING YOU FOR THE LAST FIVE MINUTES!”

“Wha? But — but, the song! It’s in THE SONG!”

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? DAMMIT, TURN OFF THE STEREO RIGHT NOW, I NEED YOUR HELP IN THE KITCHEN.”

I later played the track for my brother, to see if I was crazy or not, and after he too heard it he took off the headphones and said, ‘Okay, that’s weird.”

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[50/50] Song #38: “Save It For Later”

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Special_Beat_ServiceSong #38: “Save It for Later” — The English Beat (1982)

It was that first week in college, when you first move into the dorm and seemingly make a new friend every five minutes, that I met a girl named Marty. She too was a PK, and I thought her roommate Cindy was particularly cute. We went down the checklist of freshman cliches — sitting on the dorm floor, making popcorn, trading life stories, checking each other out. I asked Marty what music she liked, and she replied “Ska.” I pretended to know what she was talking about.

Of course I’d already been listening to ska for years, even if I didn’t know the genre had a name. Thanks to The Clash, Madness and The English Beat (or just The Beat, if you’re a purist), everyone was swimming in it. Ironically, The English Beat only stood out for me after they broke up and became General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, and it was just a few years ago I realized I still didn’t have a copy of their last, best album “Special Beat Service.”

Like Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” “Save It For Later” wasn’t a big hit when released, and yet thanks to covers and movie soundtracks, it’s cache has only grown over time. It randomly popped back into my life a few years ago and steadily climbed up my list of favorites. For the first time I really listened to the lyrics — they’re about relationships, right? —and its themes of loyalty, indecision and fatigue ensures it will only get more popular with me as I get older.

Plus, there’s a sax and the video is a riot.

[50/50] Video Game #8: Cyclone

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Video Game #8: Cyclone (1988)

cyclone“We have a winner!”

Considering how many quarters I dropped in pinball machines over the decades, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one. This is no token appearance, however; this game earned its place on this list. Pinball, once a reigning symbol of juvenile delinquency, was dethroned as king of the arcade when video came along in the 1970s. Thanks to a revival lead by a handful of designers at Williams Electronics, the pinball game came roaring back in the late ’80s with digital interfaces and elaborate Rube Goldberg-like structures in titles like Bad Cats, Pin*Bot and Comet.

Williams’ follow up to Comet, Cyclone, was that rare sequel that’s better than the original. The roller coaster/carnival-themed game was so popular and so widely distributed — and so well constructed — you can still find working machines in many places today, the digital voice of its carnival barker announcer calling out insults as patrons pass by.

[50/50] Comedy #8: “Smokey & the Bandit”

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Comedy #8: “Smokey & the Bandit” (1977)

truckinTurtlesI guess you could say I have something for cars, or at least movies about cars. Certainly movies about road trips, and absolutely movies about cross country races. The ’70s were the heyday of the chase film, when stuntmen did their own stunts, and they actually wrecked all those cars for your entertainment. Most were low-budget B-pictures designed to fill out the double feature at the drive-in, featuring good ol’ boys, bootleggers and auto thieves being pursued by hapless law enforcement officials driving thru billboards and crashing into cricks.

While the epic satire “Death Race 2000” best captured the gonzo nature of America and the open road — complete with drivers getting points for running over pedestrians — the genre reached its zenith with “Smokey & the Bandit,” the big-screen hit that (finally) successfully combined comedy, crashes and citizens band in equal measure. While the chemistry of it’s big stars helped (and by that I mean the Trans Am and Sally Fields, not Burt Reynolds), the movie absolutely benefited from the Jerry Reed song “East Bound and Down,” an infectious country ditty that knits the whole road trip together. If you ever need to get something done … beer run, mowing the lawn, housecleaning … just put this song on and it will keep you moving.

I loved the idea of a cross country race against the clock so much, I used it in my first book, the infamous “Truckin’ Turtles.” Released in 1989, the first (and, it turned out, only) royalty check I received for the Teenage Mutant Turtles tie-in arrived in time for me to blow it all on wining and dining my future wife. It was money well spent.

Final week to vote in the finals!

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

SND cover #38Uno! Dos! Tres! Quatro! … only 4 days left to vote for my SND cover design in the final round. If you haven’t yet cast your vote for the cover, please click here and cast your ballot today. Thank you!

http://www.snd.org/2013/04/its-down-to-5-finalists-vote-on-the-cover-of-snds-next-best-of-news-design-book/

(You have to mouse over the cover and click when it says “Cast your vote.” Leaving a comment does not count as a vote. And please do not cut and paste this blog post in the comments section. It will be deleted and you will look like an idiot, and nobody wants that.)

[50/50] Short Story #8: “A Sound of Thunder”

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Short Story #8: “A Sound of Thunder” — Ray Bradbury (1952)

k-bigpicI have two very clear memories of my father introducing me to science fiction. When I was 7 and my brother was 5, he took us to see “2001: A Space Odyssey.” On the big screen. It was the cinematic equivalent of giving a child acid, and I will always be grateful. Before we went into the theater, I remember him crouching down in front of us and saying something like, ‘boys, you’re not going to understand what you’re about to see, but it’s important that you see it.’

The next summer, while we were at the beach during one particularly rainy family vacation, we stumbled across “Star Trek” on TV. It had just gone into syndication, and he was excited that we would get to experience it. The first episode we saw was “The Trouble with Tribbles,” which of course meant we were permanently hooked. For the next couple of years, he and I would watch Star Trek together most afternoons when I got home from elementary school. Again, I am eternally grateful.

I know he also pointed me in the direction of “A Sound of Thunder,” though the details are now fuzzy. I just remember laying on the couch at my grandmother’s house, gobsmacked, as I finished reading Bradbury’s most famous short story. It is not his best, far from it in fact, but its O. Henry ending — and that it helped coin the term “butterfly effect” – ensures you probably know it even if you haven’t read it.

Hunters + Time Travel + Dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong?

Find out here: http://www.lasalle.edu/~didio/courses/hon462/hon462_assets/sound_of_thunder.htm

Image courtesy of io9 and its “Can you outrun a T-Rex?” (The answer is no.)

[50/50] Album #40: “An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer”

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Album #40: “An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer” — Tom Lehrer (1959)

220px-An_Evening_Wasted_With_Tom_LehrerOK you kids, listen up — back in MY day if you wanted comedy you didn’t have YouTube or “Funny or Die” or Comedy Central. We didn’t have LOLcats or HBO or even SNL. Back then, if you wanted to hear something funny, you either had to stay up late to catch a comedian on Carson … or listen to a comedy album.

Unless you lived in LA or Chicago or New York, where they had comedy clubs, your only hope to hear your favorite stand-up was on vinyl. Comedy albums frequently became runaway best sellers on Billboard and catapulted guys like Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and George Carlin to national prominence. I first learned of Monty Python thanks to their records, as we rolled around on the family room floor of my friend’s suburban split-level hysterical with laughter. I had many of Monty Python’s best skits memorized years before I ever saw “Flying Circus” on TV.

Long before Weird Al you had Allan Sherman and Spike Jones doing hit music parodies, but the biggest of these singing comedians — or at least the one with longest shelf life — was Tom Lehrer. Ironically Lehrer, a college professor and mathematician by trade, only toured for a few years in the late 1950s, but his pithy ditties about science, S&M, WWIII and wholly improper behavior continue hold up almost 60 years later.

Lehrer went on to write songs for the original TV news parody show, “That Was The Week That Was” before going back to teaching and permanently retiring from the entertainment biz. There are several collections of his darkly humorous tunes, but you can’t do better than his best known live album, “An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer.” This record is essentially his greatest hits, including one that is still popular today, thanks to the internet. Here is Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, singing “The Element Song” from memory. Because, science.

Art interlude — Help put my cover in the Top 5

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

SND cover #38So I just found out a couple of my designs are in the running for the cover of this year’s Society of News Design book. The SND has been throwing open the cover to newspaper designers around the world in an annual contest.

The first round is by popular vote, which means — I need your help.

Please go to this link and vote for #38 (I also did #36 and #37 … whichever one you prefer). You can vote once a day but the ballot box is only open for the next 48 hours. Voting ends this Thursday, April 11, at 5pm, when the top 5 picks then go on to the SND editors for the final round. So, if you would, please go vote for one of my covers today!

SND cover #37(You can also go to the link below and click on the “You decide the book cover” entry. Scroll down past the slide show until you see a grid of the entries — and please vote for #38 … or #36 or #37. Note that voting is marked by IP address, so unlike American Idol you can only vote once from one network a day).

Thanks for your support!

http://www.snd.org/

[50/50] Song #39: “The Pink Panther Theme”

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Song #39: “The Pink Panther Theme” — Henry Mancini (1963)

pink-panther_anim1Speaking of Henry Mancini, the next song in my countdown is easily his best known — certainly his most played — composition. Mancini’s jazzy big band instrumental is about as close to perfect as you can get for a theme, with a tenor sax dancing over the ting of a triangle and a blast of horns. The suave opening number from the first Pink Panther movie took on a life of its own, as the titular character from the animated credits was spun off into an Academy Award-winning short, a long-running Saturday morning cartoon, and a shill for numerous products — with his trademark sax following him everywhere. (Nobody seems to remember that “The Pink Panther” in the original movie was the name of the diamond a cat burglar played by David Niven is trying to steal.) It reappeared as the theme song in almost all of the Pink Pathern sequels and has shown up in numerous TV shows over the decades.

Songs with the sax will show up a lot on this list. A lot. Just thought I should tell you now. In fact, in 4th grade, when we all had to pick an instrument in music class, I almost picked the sax. I really wanted to play The Pink Panther theme. Having already been defeated by the piano however, I found the many keys of the saxaphone too intimidating and went with the trumpet instead. (My decision was also colored by the desire to play the horn solo from this Louise Prima classic from Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”)

Thanks to the success of their character, the animation studio that created The Pink Panther was able to launch its own show, built around dozens of characters in seven minute shorts. While “The Inspector” and “The Ant & the Aardvark” never caught on like Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, they were still pretty entertaining for their time. Taking a lot of cues from the Road Runner and Coyote, the best Pink Panther shorts were wordless affairs, full of pratfalls and impossible physics, such as this little gem from the late ’60s — which is only marred by the unfortunate laugh tract.

[50/50] Video Game #9: Spy Hunter

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Video Game #9: Spy Hunter (1983)

1067979495What’s better than watching James Bond? Driving his gadget-filled sports car … or at least the arcade version of it. In the most obvious idea ever for a video game, Spy Hunter put you behind the sexy sexy wheel of a sleek hi-tech ride and sent you out to make the world — or at least the street — safe for democracy.

Seriously, who hasn’t been stuck in traffic at one point or another and wished they had a machine gun to clear the road ahead?

Spy Hunter armed you with all the clandestine classics — machine guns, oil slicks, smoke screens, surface to air missiles — to neutralize wave after wave of nefarious opponents in dark sedans trying to run you off the road, slash your tires, or blow you up. Of course it was a huge smash.

According to something I read on the internet, the designers at Bally originally wanted to use the James Bond theme for their game, but when the rights proved too costly, they went with another brassy soundtrack from the height of the Cold War: Henry Mancini’s theme to Peter Gunn. A now-forgotten ’50s TV show about a tough gumshoe — forgotten except for Mancini’s cool compositions — the pick was a perfect for Spy Hunter, and  single-handedly reintroduced the Mancini song to a new generation … at least until Art of Noise came along.

Numerous attempts have been made to update, reinvent and sequelize Spy Hunter (every few years there’s even a threat of a big screen movie), but nothing has been as remotely successful — or fun — as the original arcade game. Like the Peter Gunn theme, it’s a classic all by itself.