I’m afraid. I’m afraid. No, I’m scared. No I’m scared.

Last year, I took the occasion of Halloween (or at least the run-up to Halloween) to confess to the perhaps odd things that scared me when I was a kid. It only takes a second post to turn it into a tradition.

The Exorcist was a smash-hit movie when I was three-years-old. Three! So I doubt that that’s when I saw the newspaper ad for William Friedkin’s horror classic. But I do have a vivid memory of being upstairs in my grandfather’s house, looking through the movie ads and getting stuck on the image of a silhouetted figure outside of a house, the presence of something horrible somehow promised by the wash of light crushing out on him. It’s easily one of the most striking visuals of nineteen-seventies cinema, and it was even starker in the ashy black-and-white of the newspaper. It was mesmerizing and terrifying. Nowadays, I can find my way to far more adorable renderings of the film’s terrors.

Speaking of the added impact of ashy black-and-white. I’m not sure what the first Stephen King novel I read was, but the first one I owned was a paperback copy of King’s 1977 novel The Shining. Handed down to me by an aunt when I was probably way too young to get it, it took me years to muster the courage to read it, largely because I was stopped by the simple image on the front cover, mixing the innocence of a dark haired boy with something demonic and, therefore, deeply menacing. It didn’t help that the kid in the book and I shared a first name.

This isn’t something from when I was a kid. Far from it, in fact. Instead, it’s a song from the French band M83, off of their 2005 album Before the Dawn Heals Us. Over angular, shrieking electronic distortion, the song tells the story of a woman traveling with her child is first rattled and then pursued by a strange man she encounters at a gas station. Rather than lyrics, the story is conveyed with dialogue, delivered with great emotional intensity by actress Kate Moran. It’s probably one of those love-it-or-hate-it tracks, but I’ll admit that I find it scary as can be.

College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top 10 Albums of 1981, 8 (tie)


8. The Undertones, Positive Touch

Trouser Press wrote: “Derry’s finest grow up without growing old. Refined yet rocking, and true to its title.”

Naturally, Trouser Press isn’t going to provide a nice, clean exercise in backwards counting. Idiosyncrasy must run in the ink. I’ve no idea how the “10 Best” list was compiled, but I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that publisher Ira Robbins wrote up his own personal tally and passed it around the office until he found someone who’d offer the ratification of saying, “Yep, that looks like a Trouser Press list, all right.” That’s not to imply that Robbins was despotic in any way, just to acknowledge that the publication, and everything that emanated from it, always struck me as a strong reflection of his taste and sensibility. And the couple of ties on the list (yes, there’s another one to come) could represent a very singular conflict between a couple of admired records.

The Irish band would probably merit special mention in the history of rock ‘n’ roll if they had stopped after their debut single, 1978’s truly marvelous “Teenage Kicks.” Thankfully, though, they were significantly more prolific than that. Positive Touch was the band’s third full-length LP in as many years, filled with exactly the same sort of crisp New Wave gems they’d been creating from the get-go. Perhaps the only significant difference was a newfound willingness to slip into the realm of the political. Their home territory in Northern Ireland was then completely immersed in bloody conflicts known as the Troubles, after all. Multiple songs addressed the ongoing issue, albeit fairly obliquely at times. For example, the single “It’s Going to Happen,” was reportedly directly about the hunger strikes taking place at time. The resulting death of Bobby Sands happened while the song was still riding the charts. Still, it takes some concentration to get that from the lyrics, a situation only exacerbated by the wacky music video produced to promote the song. Not every song that makes a point has to be as leadenly obvious as something that Sting might write, but it does sometimes seem like the Undertones are only reluctantly getting into issues more significant than girls and beer and dancing. Certainly, there was no further rabble-rousing from the band in subsequent efforts.

The softness of the big points is more of an observation than a complaint, however. The Undertones were uncommonly good at drawing on the long influence of their rock ‘n’ roll forebears and filtering it into their own distinct sound. Album opener “Fascination” borrows some of the crazy rhythms and tribal tonality of “Stranded in the Jungle” by the Cadets while still instilling originality and modernity into it. Similarly, the calls of “Here it comes” on “Life’s Too Easy” invariably call to mind Mick Jagger forecasting the approach of the “19th Nervous Breakdown.” It’s a true gift of the band that they make these moments come across as honorable claims upon their musical inheritance rather than mere derivative playfulness. Glancing at the rear view mirror doesn’t mean it’s time to stop moving forward.

The Undertones released one more album together during their original run: 1983’s The Sin of Pride. The band broke up shortly thereafter. Lead singer Feargal Sharkey (who possesses one of the greatest names in rock ‘n’ roll history) had a reasonably successful solo career for a time, and brothers John and Damian O’Neill, always the primary songwriters for the Undertones, went on to form That Petrol Emotional. The inevitable reunion of the Undertones launched around 1999, although Sharkey opted out, apparently content with the undoubtedly sizable financial rewards he was reaping as a high-powered figure on the business side of the U.K. music industry.

10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke

Spectrum Check

So I’ve been a pretty bad kid. I’ve just been sitting on a couple music reviews, which are now both overdue. It’s not just neglect–I have had a strangely busy week–but I’m still is desperate need of some concerted time with the releases in question. Between that and some difficulty is securing a specific screener copy of a movie, I had another fairly light week at Spectrum Culture. At least I feel good about my lone contribution.

In general, I really like writing for our Oeuvre feature, and I had my third contribution to our ongoing survey of the films of Samuel Fuller. I wrote on China Gate, which, honestly, wasn’t very good. In its own way, that’s an especially interesting challenge, and I like the piece I pulled together. I’ve got a couple more efforts to which I’m obligated before we’re done with Fuller, and the next one promises to be a real doozy.

One for Friday: Los Lobos, “I Got Loaded”

As had been established over and over again in the “Disclaimer” section of this weekly feature, I genuinely try to make sure every song I post here is out of print, at least in terms of physical copies that can be ordered through a record store. Tim Quirk from the great Too Much Joy convinced me a while back that any similar reticence around sharing sound digitally-available music was at least somewhat misguided since I’m not all that concerned about damaging the ability of label bigwigs from lining their already overstuffed pockets (round these here parts, we call it “The Quirk Rule”). As I’ve admitted many times, my research into whether or not a particular album is out of print is not especially rigorous, so I sometimes doubt my own conclusions. For example, after yesterday’s Top 50 Films of the 80s post, I got to thinking about the outstanding Los Lobos song that plays during the man-made rain delay sequence in Bull Durham. But that song first appeared on the wildly acclaimed major label debut album from the band; surely that’s still in print.

I was all set to post about a different song today, but, for the hell of it, I looked up How Will the Wolf Survive? on Amazon and, for the life of me, couldn’t find a readily available copy. Every listing for the album directed me to used copies available from different sellers, and none of them even had that little message that sometimes crops up about how the item in question will be back in stock soon, honest it will. But this didn’t seem quite right to me. After all, just about every other Los Lobos album appeared to still be in print, including a few that I figured had probably been relegated to afterthought status by now. Maybe, I rationalized, Wolf had been pulled from the catalog in advance of some pending but thus far unannounced deluxe reissue. After all, next year is the twenty-eighth anniversary of its initial release.

So I uploaded it and started the process of writing about it, using my surprise at its unavailability as the premise for the very post. After all, I didn’t have that much more to say about the song. It’s great, sure, and I especially like how Shelton uses it in his film, which was undoubtedly the first time I heard it. I know it’s a favorite of a notable guest blogger in this space. But that’s all I got. It’s okay. It happens that way sometimes.

Thing is, I was wrong. When I checked again, after typing out the first couple hundred words of the entry, there it was, readily available through the sizable online retailer mentioned above. Gift-wrap is available! With a little more money spent, I could get it sent using FREE Super Saver Shipping. Of course, How Will the Wolf Survive? isn’t out of print! Who could even think such a thing? Not anyone who knew anything about music, that’s for sure.

But now I’ve already got all these words written, over five-hundred by now. The hyperlink formatting to the MP3 file is already set up. I could just scrap it all, but I don’t really want to. I don’t want to let the keyboard abuse go to waste (I really hit the keys hard), and I just plainly want to share the song. Admittedly, it’s no huge loss if I give up on the notion of posting it. Nor is it some great achievement to get this particular bit of writing out there. It’s not like it’s good enough to, I don’t know, win me a free steak or anything. I mean, look at it. Half of it is some meandering diatribe about my clumsiness in doing my due diligence and the naivete that led me to believe in a conclusion I should have instinctively known was false. Who wants to read this? Probably no one. Then again, the song is still worth listening to. That alone makes it worth it, right?

Los Lobos, “I Got Loaded”

(Disclaimer: I think I’ve gone on about this mix-up quite enough. Let’s just say that I know this should be removed. I really do. If there’s someone else out there who knows the same thing and has a legitimate claim on its copyright or distribution, who then chooses to contact me and ask for its removal, or even just send an email in which the entire message is “Hey, what gives?,” I will assuredly remove it without regret or animosity. Meanwhile, anyone who doesn’t own this album should seriously think about ordering it through their favorite local, independently-owned record store.)

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Ten

#10 — Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)
I believe in the church of baseball. There’s something magical that happens between those white lines under summer skies. It’s a sport in which two full teams face each other other, but the most decisive match-up, the one that dominates the game, is between two people–the pitcher and the batter–trying to outguess one another over and over again. In its patience, persistence, camaraderie, individualism and surge from relative sedateness to a field full of controlled chaos, it genuinely gets at something inadvertently revealing about the quintessential American spirit. As romantic as it can be, it’s also tinged with humor, led by the spectacle of seeing men play a boys’ game. It’s a long season, somewhat akin to a robust life, and the difference between grand success and abject failure is twenty-five hits. Just one dying quail a week.

Part of the brilliance of Ron Shelton’s directorial debut, Bull Durham, is that it’s unashamedly about baseball, every last bit of it. Yes, it’s the poetry of a Walt Whitman testimonial or the beauty of a well-struck ball sailing high into the night, but it’s also the grind of indistinguishable days, the frustration of an unshakable slump and the days when distractions simply take over. Candlesticks do always make a nice gift. Shelton doesn’t feel need to dumb down the material, drawn from his own experience as a minor league baseball player, and, in doing so, he not only made a movie that took the sport more seriously than any prior film treatment, he fundamentally transformed the general understanding of a game so entrenched in the culture that it’s called “America’s Pastime.” When journeyman catcher Crash Davis refers to the Major Leagues as “The Show” in Bull Durham, it introduced new terminology into the vernacular. This fall, the phrase is used in Moneyball as casually and comfortably as a character in a romantic comedy proclaims their undying affection for another after a series of misadventures. Shelton demythologized the sport that exploits mythology like no other, paradoxically making it seem more special and wondrous than ever before.

But Bull Durham is not just a movie about baseball. While the scenes centered solely on the action on the field are all engaging and terrifically funny, the movie is as much about the people as the playing. Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner in the peak of his down-to-earth charm, is brought in to tutor a hotshot pitching prospect, playing with doofus bravado by Tim Robbins. Their already fragile, contentious relationship is complicated by the different levels of affection (or lust, perhaps) the two players feel for Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in the single most inventive, striking performance in a career that has no shortage of nominees for such a designation. Annie is a ballpark groupie who enters into sexual relationships with a new player each year, offering her own prodigious knowledge of all aspects of the world, including baseball, to her season-long paramour.

Just as Shelton rejects oversimplification of the sport at the film’s center, he is adverse to any shortcuts in the inner and outer lives of his main characters. The interpersonal relationships are deeply complex and portrayed accordingly. It’s not quite a zero sum game, but every triumph for someone has a decidedly different impact on others. Mixes feelings abound, and there’s often no easy methodology for sorting through them. Both Crash and Annie offer their own distinctly different forms of mentoring to the upstart kid, but, in many ways, the film is about the ways all three of these characters need to suffer the indignity and challenge of growing up, of measuring the gap between who they’ve been and who they will be. With an absolute absence of pretension, Bull Durham charts that growth and the accumulation of knowledge and belief that shapes it. There are times when the travail of living requires intense self-reflection and then there are times when all it takes is a simple truism, like, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Discerning between the two…well, that’s where wisdom lies.

Great Moments in Literature

“I come to my journal as a Catholick to a confessor. My bruises insist these extraordinary past five hours were not a sickbed vision conjured by my Ailment, but real events. I shall describe what befell me this day, steering as close to the facts as possible.”

                     --David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, 2004


                     --Don McGregor, MARVEL PREMIERE, Vol. 1, No. 43, 
                             "In Manhattan, They Play For Keeps," 1978

Top 40 Smash Taps: “Crazy Downtown”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

Allan Sherman’s recording career came about because of a performance at a testimonial dinner for an outgoing label president. Jim Conkling was stepping down as the top man at Warner Bros. records in 1961, when the label was still something a fledgling upstart, largely getting by with comedy albums. Sherman worked in broadcasting at the time, most notably as the creator of the game show I’ve Got a Secret. He took the microphone and performed a parody version of the hit song “Big Bad John” that reworked it with the first name Jim instead. It was the clear highlight of the evening and resulted in the incoming president of the label to offer Sherman a contract.

Basing major business decisions on what was amusing on a night when there was undoubtedly copious consumption of stiff cocktails may seem suspect, but the results prove a surprising wisdom in it. Sherman’s debut LP, My Son, the Folk Singer, was an enormous success, reaching the top of the Billboard album charts and becoming of the fastest-selling records up to that point. in 1963, Sherman’s third album, My Son, the Nut yielded a Top 40 hit when the tale of summer camp woe “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” climbed all the way to #2. It was even big enough that foreign language covers cropped up, including efforts in Norwegian and Swedish.

Sherman continued to sell lots of records and play sold-out shows in locales of unlikely prestige (during his peak, he played Carnegie Hall and had a noted collaboration with the Boston Pops Orchestra). He didn’t get enough radio play or sell enough 45s to become a regular visitor to the Top 40. In fact, he only gained entry to that club on one other occasion, with a spoof of the song “Downtown,” which Petula Clark took to the top of the singles chart in early 1965. Later that same year, Sherman released his comedic version, taking the original’s celebration of the freedom of heading into the heart of the big city and turning it on its head to imagine the parental worry that results from seeing kids go bounding into the spooky, urban night. When he sings, “But every time we ask you what you’re doing after dark there/ You just say that you were frugging to Petula Clark there,” he’s speaking for every fuddy-duddy who doesn’t understand why the girls are screaming their heads off about all those floppy-haired Brits (the week that Sherman’s song peaked at #40, the Top 10 included efforts from The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Freddie and the Dreamers and two different tracks from Herman’s Hermits). Hard to believe the song didn’t get more traction with the kids.

“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band