The Art of the Sell — John Waters “No Smoking” PSA

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Back in the nineteen-eighties, movie theaters had to work a little harder to remind patrons that they weren’t allowed to smoke. None accomplished it with more panache than those lucky art house theaters blessed with a short reel of director John Waters addressing the crowd directly. Waters explains the policy clearly, but, contrarian to the core, he also expresses his disapproval at the prohibition, marveling that anyone could go the length of a movie — especially the high-falutin’ fare about to offered at the art house — without indulging in a smoke. All the while, Waters puffs away, all the better to taunt jonesing moviegoers.

I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked. But even I have to concede the power of the sadistic seduction offered by Waters. He almost has me reaching instinctively for some phantom pack in my pocket.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #704 to #701

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704. Phil Manzanera, K-Scope (1978)

Phil Manzanera was a busy fellow in the late nineteen-seventies. Undoubtedly most famous as the lead guitarist for Roxy Music, Manzanera was dabbling in all sorts of other projects. Tops among them was the band 501, which included fellow Roxy Music veteran Brian Eno. Originally conceived as a live act only, the group gelled well enough to release the studio album Listen Now, in 1977, and they started working on a follow-up shortly thereafter. Things shifted, however, and that material wound up as the core of K-Scope, officially the second solo album from Manzanera.

Drawing on the creativity of many contributors, Manzanera makes an album that zips zanily around rock subgenres, somehow managing to feel wholly apart from the most tired trends of the day. Not every track is strong — or even particularly good — but the freewheeling spirit keeps K-Scope consistently buoyant. Among the better cuts, “Remote Control” has a new wave crispness, and “Slow Motion TV” is like the Damned circa Strawberries, when they followed poppier instincts. On the downside, reggae-influenced “Cuban Crisis” lands somewhere between 10cc, Steely Dan, and Sting at his most blandly appropriative, and “Walking Through Heaven’s Door” starts at drippy soft rock then shifts into a bland musical trot that sounds like a discard from a markedly misguided rock opera.

The instrumentals on the album are generally stronger, whether the punchy, jazz-inflected explorations of the title cut or the edgy musical probing on “N-Shift.” There’s nothing particular wrong with the vocals or the lyrics, but there’s an inescapable sense that what Manzanera and crew really want to be doing is noodling around with different tones, melodies, and rhythms until they land on something novel. They reach that goal enough to make K-Scope a solid enough record to overcome its flaws.

 

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703. The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The Only Band That Matters were formally introduced to U.S. audiences with Give ‘Em Enough Rope, their second album. The Clash’s label, CBS Records, simply felt the band’s self-titled debut was too brash and raw to make any headway stateside. Record-buyers in the U.K. were a varied enough lot that Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols could levitate all the way to the top of the album chart (amusingly taking over peak position from Cliff Richard and the Shadows and ceding it to Bread), but the equivalent U.S. sales tally was all Rumours all the time.

To increase the likelihood that the Clash would make a more marketable album in their sophomore outing, CBS Records paired them with Sandy Pearlman, the regular producer of Blue Öyster Cult. For a band that was used to bashing out songs and then picking up the pieces — or, more likely, letting the pieces lie and rot — the persnickety polish Pearlman brought to the recording process was tedious. But Pearlman wasn’t trying to disguise the Clash’s insurrectionist soul. If anything, he shaped the platform to properly showcase the Clash, distinguishing them from other punk acts whose no-fucks-to-give disregard for the niceties of performance could come across as a reactionary insolence of youth, born of uncertainty and bound to fade. Despite CBS’s misgivings, The Clash is a great album. It’s also true that Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the album that proved the Clash were a realer deal than their contemporaries.

As if to prove that refinement doesn’t necessitate softening, the album opens with the immediate explosion “Safe European Home,” about the troubles endured by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones when they were seen as easy marks on a writing trip to Jamaica. The cut is political, fevered, conflicted, and wry in its miserable self-appraisal. There’s nothing easy about it, and matters remain similarly knotty on the propulsive “Guns on the Roof” and “Tommy Gun,” the latter highlighted by the rat-a-tat drumming of Topper Headon, new to the lineup for the second album, as Strummer rages about the glorification of violence.

“Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is downright jaunty, partially attributable to the barrelhouse piano playing by Blue Oyster Cult’s Allen Lanier. Jones take his turn at the lead microphone on “Stay Free,” which takes nineteen-sixties sunshine pop and gives it a hard twist, and the album closes with the melancholy autobiography “All the Young Punks,” which was renamed “That’s No Way to Spend Your Youth” on original U.S. pressings of the album. Across all the tracks, the band plays with an urgency that suggests the plugs might be pulled from the amps at any moment, so if they’re going to say something, they’d better say it now.

As the label’s overt stab at creating product that would work in the U.S. market, Give ‘Em Enough Rope didn’t really work out. While it performed admirably in the U.K. the album stalled at #128 on the Billboard chart, two places lower than the peak of The Clash, when it saw its delayed U.S. release in 1979. Even so, Give ‘Em Enough Rope must be seen as pivotal. If nothing else, it is what the band built on and corrected from when they made their next studio full-length, an album that is unerringly in the mix in any reasonable, informed discussion of the greatest rock albums of all time.

 

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702. Split Enz, Waiata (1981)

If the original plan had been followed, the sixth album from Split Enz would have had a different title in practically every country in which it was sold. Waiata is a word from the Māori language, spoken by the indigenous people of Split Enz’s homeland of New Zealand, that translates to “celebratory song.” In Australia, the album was called Corroboree, because that is the rough equivalent of the same word in the language of Australian Aboriginals, that nation’s indigenous population. The band hoped and expected the album would be similarly retitled in every other country, honoring the people who had lived in each territory the longest. The scheme never came to fruition, and Waiata became the default name for the record. It was one of many compromises the band had to make that left them feeling disenchanted.

Split Enz were following up their biggest success to that point. The band’s previous album, True Colours, had topped the charts in New Zealand and Australia, and it had respectable showings elsewhere. In the U.S., it peaked at #40 on the Billboard album chart, and it’s centerpiece single, “I Got You,” had some success on commercial radio. Opportunities were lining up, including a spot as the opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers following the release of Waiata. Presumably, the just needed the one song, hitting the ears just right, to push them over to mass appeal.

The chiming “History Never Repeats” was the obvious choice for a single, given its encapsulation of all of songwriter Neil Finn’s formidable skills as a pop craftsman. It’s not only the sense of introspection embedded in the first word of the title that made it a proper representation when Split Enz eventually needed a name for a “best of” release. The relaxed pop song “One Step Ahead,” and the zippy “Hard Act to Follow,” which sounds a little like Naked Eyes on uppers, are similarly rock solid examples of the way in which Finn, his brother Tim, and their cohorts could take the familiar blueprint of pop music and construction a finished product so clean and perfectly realized that others’ stabs at reinvention seemed almost foolish.

Elsewhere on the album, though, the band loses their way with their own iffy ambition. Some of the stretching is dandy, as is the case with the escalating post-disco goodness on “I Don’t Wanna Dance,” on which Split Enz sounds like an earthier New Order. But “Clumsy” to adopts a sort of Devo art pop vibe and it hangs on the band awkwardly.  “Ships” is like the product of a more rote version of XTC, and the yucky power ballad “Ghost Girl” is mostly kindly interpreted as a bad attempt at commercial crossover.

Waiata and its aftermath left the band with a litany of complaints. The album packaging fell short of their hopes, they hadn’t enjoyed their second-tier status on the tour with Petty, and things in the studio had been frustrating enough to inspire a split from longtime producer David Tickle. For their next album, Time and Tide, Split Enz were ready to push back against expectations.

 

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701. Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

“I wanted to write hit singles,” Marshall Crenshaw told Jim Beviglia, as recounted in the book Playing Back the 80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits. “I was in love with the idea that hit singles were art. That was my medium, my platform, and that was really what I was going for with everything I did back then.”

Crenshaw first gained a foothold in the music business by providing “an incredible simulation” of another artist. Crenshaw was cast as John Lennon in Beatlemania, the theatrical production that set performers on stage impersonating the Fab Four. First an understudy to the original New York production, Crenshaw went on to play the role on the West Coast and then the touring company. It was during his many days in nights in hotel rooms waited to don John’s distinctive locks that Crenshaw started writing songs in earnest. Shortly after quitting the Beatles show, Crenshaw recorded a few for Crash Records, and lent a song called “Someday, Someway” to retro rock specialist Robert Gordon. Released as a single from 1981 album, Are You Gonna Be the One, “Someday, Someway” made it into the Billboard Hot 100 and was instrumental to Crenshaw signing with Warner Bros. Records.

“Someday, Someway” did even better when it was released as the lead single of Marshall Crenshaw, the singer-songwriter’s debut album. It nudged over into the Billboard Top 40 and settled into a long haul legacy as one of the signature songs of the era. There’s little doubt as to why. The cut is such a ideal distillation of all the charm and slyness and bright-eyed wonder of pop music — the art of the hit single which was Crenshaw’s aspiration — that it would have almost been understandable if the whole music biz had shut down upon its release, glumly convinced that the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song had been penned and performed, making any further attempts to reach such a peak futile. That’s ridiculous hyperbole, of course, but it sure does feel close to true when living within the track’s lean three minutes.

So much of Marshall Crenshaw is a fine echo of that sterling track. Other songs might not be as crisp and clean, but they reverberate with a familiar sound. The splendidly bittersweet breakup song “There She Goes Again,” snappy “Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.,” spirited “Brand New Lover,” and soft rockabilly number “The Usual Thing” are all enticing. “Mary Anne” comes pretty dang close to pop perfection itself, and “Cynical Girl” brings a ringing energy to an atypical tale of pining for a romantic partner with some shrewdness to her character (“Well I’ll know right away by the look in her eye/ She harbors no illusions and she’s worldly-wise”).

Marshall Crenshaw received rave reviews, but the man whose name it bore was one of the less effusive fans. He felt the production was too sterile, a complaint that seems absurd until a listen to one of Crenshaw’s demo recordings offers corroborating evidence that’s hard to dispute.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

Outside Reading — I Want a Little Sugar in My Cup edition

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An Oral History of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Perfect Men in Black ‘Sugar Water’ Scene by Rachel Handler

Look, it’s probably a stretch to call this article an oral history, since it’s really comprised of nothing more than two interviews — with Vincent D’Onofrio and director Barry Sonnenfeld — interwoven. And I’m not sure what weird clickbait sorcery the Vulture editors think they’re perpetrating by highlighting the single moment when D’Onofrio downs a glass of sugar water. Setting aside the framing flaws, this is fine recounting of the oddball ingenuity D’Onofrio brought to his performance in what is ostensibly just a silly sci-fi comedy. I recall Tommy Lee Jones briefly marveling at D’Onofrio’s work in some sort of HBO First Look or other behind-the-scenes promotional endeavor, acknowledging that there’s not a lot of research an actor can do to develop verisimilitude in portraying a giant space bug collapsed into the skin shorn from a human victim. I’ve thought about including this feat of acting in the Greatish Performances feature even since I launched it, but I felt capturing its wonders was beyond my capabilities. This article manages what I could not.

 

Rebecca Traister’s keynote speech at the 2019 MOLLY Prize dinner

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Rebecca Traister has already been highlighted once before in this fledgling feature, and I’m sure I’ll cycle back to her again and again. In my estimation, few writers, thinkers, and communicators are capturing the mood of this fraught moment better than her. Rather than an essay this time, I’m linking to a transcript of a speech she gave in a keynote address at the annual event that includes the awarding of the MOLLY Prize, named for Molly Ivins and honoring excellence in journalism. (This year’s winner is Hannah Dreier, who also earned a Pulitzer for her reporting on MS-13.) A major part of Traister’s current advocacy is taking today’s intense commitment to fighting the regressive-policy-preserving cads in the power structure and showing how it echoes other points in history when the citizenry stood up for themselves. In this speech, Traister shares the story of Elizabeth Freeman, who was given the name Mum Bett when she was born a slave in middle of the eighteenth century. Freeman successfully sued for her freedom in a case that is widely credited with leading to the abolishment of slavery in Massachusetts. She should be featured prominently in the history books, and every pedestal on which a Confederate soldier’s bronzed figure resides would be better served with a commemoration of Freeman and others like her. These stories are hidden for a reason, and making them prominent is a valuable tool in moving us forward as a society. So I’ll do my small, small part and place Freeman’s picture here, to accompany the link to Traister’s speech. When I read Traister’s words, I’m reminded of how vital it is to keep teaching, and to keep learning.

 

Never a victory so Twisted by Scott Gordon

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One of the true pleasures in moving back to the city of my birth is becoming reacquainted with a uniquely rambunctious community culture. It’s been particularly helpful to discover the handful of newer media outlets that operate with a whip-smart hardihood in alignment with the broader municipal personality. And there’s no finer chronicler of the telling absurdities of Madison, Wisconsin than Tone Madison. (Full disclosure: Some of my awkwardly-assembled sentences have occasionally appeared in that digital space.) This week, the site’s fearless leader, Scott Gordon, braved an upgraded Taco Bell on State Street, in the bustling heart of the city’s downtown. So why cover a chintzy fast food outlet debuting a limited, highly regulated menu of alcoholic offerings in a desperate attempt to extract traveling money from the pockets of college kids? The emergence of a Taco Bell where, in theory, drunkenness can be achieved is emblematic of a sea change in the city, the ballot box deposing of a seeming mayor-for-life whose foundational student radical spirit slowly atrophied into curmudgeonly opposition to practically all new liquor licenses, in addition to more problematic erosions of his progressive principles. Gordon burrito-wraps all of that lingering political drama into the article, while effectively conveying the experience of day drinking in a nearly empty Taco Bell on what’s theoretically a gala day celebrating the victory of corporate persistence. The details in the piece are so well-chosen that I find myself hoping Gordon strays from his usual beat and finds a way to cover the opening of the Taco Bell-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs.

 

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth

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Now that I’ve set aside Saturdays to celebrate the writing of other people, I think this is where I’m going to comment on — and therefore keep track of — the books I’ve read. (So rest in peace, Great Moments in Literature. You served me well.) This Philip Roth novel was published twelve full years before the 2016 presidential election, and yet it perfectly — and I mean perfectly — captures the toxic nationalism, bigotry, xenophobia, and id-driven selfishness always simmering in the national character that has delivered us to this dreadful moment in time. Focusing on the experience of one New Jersey family in an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” movement put the famed aviator and Nazi sympathizer in the White House, ending Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure after two terms. Roth expertly shows the way wide social and political issue reverberate down into personal lives, and he meticulously tracks the slow progression of citizen-stifling policies until democracy is being fully papered over with totalitarianism. It is such a precise allegorical reflection of the current moment (except that the fictionalized Lindbergh is actually skilled in guising his ill intentions and ugly prejudices) that the copyright date on the book seems like a typo.

This Week’s Model — Bob Mould, “I Don’t Mind”

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(Source)

Bob Mould writes about the impact of the Buzzcocks in his memoir, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and MemoryAs a college sophomore, Mould saw the Buzzcocks opening for Gang of Four. Enamored by what was before him, Mould intently studied the guitar work of frontman Pete Shelley. The scrutiny was obvious enough that Shelley supplemented Mould’s studies by shouting out chord changes as he made them. Elsewhere in the book, Mould recounts meeting Steve Garvey, bassist for the Buzzcocks, enthusing about the long-past show that shaped him.

“I was again reminded that I’m simply part of the lineage, part of the continuum: both listener and storyteller, fan and creator,” Mould writes.

On the cover of the Buzzcocks’ “I Don’t Mind” released this week by Mould, he is clearly and wonderfully listener, storyteller, fan, creator all at once.

 

The New Releases Shelf — Dedicated

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I’ve spent the last few days knocked to the canvas by a cruel summer ailment. Maybe it’s a summer cold or a bout with the flu. Maybe it’s something yet worse that I, a stubborn fool, should have already gone to the doctor to discuss. My implementation of a healing plan has been haphazard and confused, a near-random combo of hot tea and middleweight over-the-counter medications. Today, I finally took a more drastic step, dosing myself with one of the most formidable tools in the arsenal of self-care. I listened to Carly Rae Jepsen.

More specifically, I finally made the time to go through Dedicated, the new Jepsen album. Her fourth full-length overall, Dedicated extends and expands the sugary pop ingenuity that made Jepsen’s 2015 release Emotion a sensation among music fans who weren’t afraid of letting a little happiness into their protective bubbles of unassailable esoteric taste. Jepsen’s best tracks are bright as klieg lights, even when they’re centered on heartache and pain. “Now That I Found You” is a fine example. It starts at a strong rev and bursts into such joyous sounds that glittery confetti practically flutters out of the speakers.

As if protecting some intense music snob identity, I often often find myself truffle-hunting for the complexities within Jepsen’s songs. I like that “Julien” gets subtly gnarlier as it goes on, finishing in pop tones twisting into barbed wire, and that the peppery synth manipulations of “Automatically in Love” make it seem like Jepsen might have listened to a little Daft Punk — but, truly, only a little — between albums. I hear other artist echoes that theoretically confer a little more legitimacy to the works, as on “Want You In My Room,” which is like Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” genetically spliced with Tom Tom Club, or “Feels Right,” which isn’t far off of Control-era Janet Jackson. Occasionally, twisty association algebra isn’t required. On “Everything He Needs,” Jepsen takes Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” from the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Popeye, turns it inside out and bedazzles it.

Surely all my anxious assertions to imbue approval on Jepsen and Dedicated are unnecessary. Good music is good music, requiring no cobbled-together justification. The sly groove “Too Much” is grand on its own, as is the album-closing pop epic of self-pleasure “Party for One.” And it is the breezy, ephemeral quality of Jepsen’s songcraft — notably arrived at only after a tremendous amount of work and ruthless culling — is precisely what makes it special, sometimes borderline miraculous. As I suggested at the top, I’ve only listened to Dedicated once. That’s not my usual approach before sitting down to tap out words in reaction, but it strikes me as appropriate for Jepsen’s album. When soaking in the warmest, most rejuvenating bubble bath in the universe, it’s okay to simply enjoy the experience rather than scrutinize every soapy sphere.

Now Playing — Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s side career as a documentary filmmaker has largely been a verification of all the stuff anyone would suspect he adores, from the Rolling Stones to erudite New York institutions. A director with nothing truly left to prove, but also, as all evidence presented over the years indicates, a surplus of energy, Scorsese has regularly circled around to excavations of cultural touchstones and artists who enjoyed heydays in the latter half of the twentieth century. Music artists have been a regular source of fascination, including a lengthy film biography of George Harrison and Bob Dylan. nearly fifteen years after his first pass at the latter, Scorsese has returned to the most famous person to grow up in Hibbing, Minnesota.

As the title suggests, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese narrows in on the icon’s mid-seventies tour of the same name, liberally employing rarely seen archival footage of both concerts and backstage shenanigans, and joining the old material with more current talking-head interviews. The Rolling Thunder Revue was set up as a traveling jamboree, with a fleet of other famed performers — Joan Baez among them — sharing the stage and a freewheeling air about it. Dylan insisted on smaller venues and less typical towns, perhaps to revitalize his people’s poet persona or maybe to lessen the pressure since it had been almost a decade since he’d toured as the clear main attraction. Regardless of the motivation, the vibe of the tour was a fine match with the post-Watergate U.S., marked by confusion and a sense of irreparable rupture to all sorts of norms. The circus was arriving to entertain the rabble as the ship went down.

Scorsese opens the documentary with vintage footage of a magician performing an illusion, aided mightily by obvious camera trickery. That’s the throat-clearing warning that not all is at it seems. Dylan has been a expert myth-maker at least since the day he decided the first name of a revered Welsh poet would serve him better that his given surname of Zimmerman. Scorsese’s documentary follows the model, sprinkling in completely fabricated details in the modern reminisces, up to and including the casting of actors to portray certain key figures in the carousing caravan. If it seems like too wild a coincidence that one of the stars of Scorsese’s Casino had a previously undisclosed stint as a hanger-on member of Dylan’s troupe, well, that’s a sound instinct. And Dylan’s corroborating testimony can be disregarded by the jury.

If the folderol of fictions had a clear purpose — if it were indeed commenting on Dylan’s propensity for tall tales and image building, or were being held up as a mirror to the vaudevillian looseness to which the Revue alluded — the choice would be sound, or at least reasonable. Instead, it’s wan nonsense that distracts from the solid pleasures of the unearthed film of the tour. Dylan led the musicians and fellow artists he assembled with a ferocious sense of purpose, and Scorsese is characteristically unerring in his skillful deployment of music. He gives the performances the time to register deeply, as with the blazing version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which lands like a deluge of blows. Equally winning moments are found away from the spotlight, as Joni Mitchell runs through her new song “Coyote” backstage or an assemblage of punch-drunk music makers harmonize on an impromptu “Love Potion No. 9” in the narrow hall of the tour RV.

Why Scorsese and his cohorts feel the need to incorporate doses of flim-flam is a mystery to me. To my eyes, the older, authentic footage includes more than enough to divert, dazzle, and delight.

 

 

Laughing Matters — Strange Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

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I’ve tried to think of a way to describe the abundant pleasures of Nathan W. Pyle’s webcomic Strange Planet, but everything I come up with is merely explaining the reason its humor works, which, to be fair, is a very Strange Planet way to approach the task. Instead, I’ll just share a couple of my favorite here and include a link to the comic’s home on Instagram. The only thing I’d like to add is that the final punchline on the birthday party strip below elegantly, perfectly captures my animosity toward pranks of all kinds, even well-meaning ones and especially those I’ve personally perpetrated over the years. And it delivers this ingenious observation in only two words. This comic is a joy, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

A book collecting the strips arrives later this year.

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