SOUND CITY (ROSWELL FIMS, 2013) is a documentary about that on the surface relates the story of a recording studio in BURBANK and the people that worked, produced and created music there, but has aspirations for a wider dialogue about the relationship between the soul of music and its interaction with emerging technology.
i'm going to skip in large part the history lesson on SOUND CITY the studio, suffice to say that there are a wide abundant of classic albums recorded there on tape and legendary musicians (everyone from TOM PETTY, STEVIE NICKS to TRENT REZNOR and JOSH HOMME) and producers (RICK RUBIN, BUTCH VIG, JOE BARRESI, JIMMY IOVINE, NICK RASKULINECZ and ROSS ROBINSON) who all swear by its revered analog NEVE 8078 console. at some point in the 1980s with the advent of sequencers and early digital recording technology, the studio was deemed antiquated, but reemerged in the 90s with the help of NIRVANA's generation-defining NEVERMIND (GEFFEN, 1991) album, which took advantage of its warm analog sound and venerated thumping drum room. this drew countless acts over the ensuing decade. ultimately, the studio closed in the early 2010s after, largely the victim of dwindling recording budgets brought on by online piracy and powerful recording software available to consumers on their personal computers.
but id argue this film is really about recording technology and the philosophy behind it. BRAD WILK of RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE hit this idea home quite pointedly in the film when he states:
Whatever bands that you love, go find out what bands they love, and what bands turned them on, and then you really start getting into the human aspect of it because the further back you go in time the less technology you had, and consequently the better records you had. There’s this incredible library of music thank god.
and in essence that human touch is what makes music work, argues director and legendary NIRVANA drummer / FOO FIGHTERS frontman DAVE GROHL. those imperfections, miscues and "mistakes" are what make us human and recognize such in the music we love. this is not to say that the film is anti-technology. TRENT REZNOR of NINE INCH NAILS makes the case that emerging technologies expand our capacity to create, expand the colors available and with it the sonic possibilities. it is all in how you use it.
and i feel GROHL is on to something with this. too often in modern ROCK AND ROLL the sounds are so "perfect" that it loses something in the process. it sounds stiff, soulless, slick and most damningly "commercial" to my ears. there is a reason why people go back and listen to raw aggression in music for inspiration, whether that be HARDCORE acts with terrible sound fidelity in their recordings or more classic acts like GUNS N ROSES, NIRVANA, THE STOOGES, QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, THE ROLLING STONES, etc. these are all actual bands playing music on the spot, in the moment, especially in a live context. there is something to be said about putting yourself in that space where you are vulnerable, no netting below. modern ROCK AND ROLL is safer than milk. its boring.
HIP HOP was not brought up in the film, but id argue that their use of emerging technology is within the REZNOR framework. in HIP HOP production there are literally no rules and no expectations. if it bounces and sounds killer than it works, the process be damned.
lastly its hard to watch this film and not feel nostalgic, which is a sentiment i despise. its too easy to correct snare tempos, pitch guitars and autotune vocals on the back end.
i just feel that some point someone out there is gonna come out of left field with the most direct, raw, undiluted, undeniable shit ever and will wipe out the phonies much like NIRVANA did in the early 1990s. i just hope i am young enough to recognize it and not too old to experience it.
i first came across SLOWDIVE while watching GREGG ARAKI films like THE DOOM GENERATION (DESPERATE PICTURES, 1995) and NOWHERE (DESPERATE PICTURES, 1997). their sound had this ethereal atmospheric quality with soaring waves of looped feedback winding and unwinding itself around a floating female/male singing tandem mixed way back in the mix. it was the perfect audio bed for films about largely centered around reckless young adults and their ever-evolving identities, attitudes and emotions that seemed to swell and dissipate. that was pretty much when i got interested in SLOWDIVE.
the documentary SOUVLAKI (PITCHFORK, 2015) is an oral history of the seminal SHOEGAZE band as described by members NEIL HALSTEAD, RACHEL GOSWELL, SIMON SCOTT, NICK CHAPlIN and CHRISTIAN SAVILL, as well as CREATION RECORDS founder ALLEN MCGEE, producer CHRIS HUFFORD and mixer/engineer ED BULLER. it reveals the process behind the development behind their transcendent SOUVLAKI (CREATION, 1993) album and how the recently dissolved romantic relationship between HALSTEAD and GOSWELL informed the record. pretty standard fair for music documentaries.
what resonated with me was how they describe the scene at the time, pre-GRUNGE and BRITPOP, when bands like THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN, SPACEMEN 3, COCTEAU TWINS and MY BLOODY VALENTINE were playing small gigs in rural ENGLAND. when the sound was still underground. the band itself was made of the decidedly INDIE HALSTEAD, who grew up in a household where music other than CLASSICAL was verboten, and two local GOTHS in GOSWELL and CHAPLIN; all agree on THE SMITHS. knowing that i can definitely hear a POST PUNK thread in their sound from GOTH ROCK bands like BAUHAUS (i.e. DANIEL ASH), JOY DIVISION, BERLIN-era DAVID BOWIE and SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES. they all used sound and looped effects to make deeply evocative music that resonated on both on an emotional and visceral level.
the documentary, like others in the PITCHFORK CLASSIC series, has the band members elaborate on standout tracks like "40 DAYS," "WHEN THE LIGHT HITS," "SOUVLAKI SPACE STATION," "DAGGER," and "ALISON." it also showcased BRIAN ENO's ability to serve as a catalyst for soundscapes that formed the basis for other songs as well. in ENO there is a figure that is purely interested in the creation of interesting sounds, period. he served as a catalyst during writing sessions with HALSTEAD, who hilariously and fortunately didn't know much about him at the time, and left. ENO's production techniques are fodder for another entry, so i wont go into that here, but needless to say his unconventional approaches and deep penchant for sonic experimentation is all over SOUVLAKI. it marks a new direction for the band which fascinatingly was influenced by DUB REGGAE and new AMBIENT acts at the time like APHEX TWIN. its all in there, you can definitely hear it.
in recent years the band has reformed and even released the stellar SLOWDIVE (DEAD OCEANS, 2017), but the SOUVLAKI record should not be missed by anyone. requisite listening for anyone interested in SHOEGAZE, INDIE ROCK, ALTERNATIVE ROCK or even AMBIENT or ORCHESTRAL music. really just great music for anyone moved by emotionally affecting sounds in general. at least it gets me every time, right back to being a teenager living in KUWAIT, an oppressive country with little freedom or ability for self-expression or creativity.
NOTE: also, the post-SLOWDIVE band MOJAVE 3 is also worth your time, although they are a completely different vibe altogether.
MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP (FIRST LOOK INTERNATIONAL, 2003) is a deeply affecting documentary about RODNEY BINGENHEIMER, the influential LOS ANGELES scenester, DJ and entrepreneur who is primarily famous for his early promotion of consequential bands ranging from THE RAMONES, NIRVANA, THE SEX PISTOLS, THE CURE, BLONDIE, VAN HALEN, GUNS N ROSES, NO DOUBT, BLUR, THE GERMS among seemingly countless others. his late night radio show "RODNEY ON THE ROQ" on LOS ANGELES' 106.7 KROQ was required listening for generations of SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA rock fans and music industry veterans. for decades he had a unique sense of the pulse of AMERICAN CULTURE and a preternatural ability to champion various movements in their infancy as they were emerging out of the underground such as PUNK ROCK, INDIE ROCK and even BRITPOP. previous to his radio show he had been known for his nightclub RODNEY BINGENHEIMER's ENGLISH DISCO which in the 1970s played host to GLAM ROCK and POWER POP royalty like DAVID BOWIE and IGGY POP.
full disclosure: my earliest memories of listening to the radio are to that of KROQ in the early 1990s. especially when NIRVANA broke big. for me the playlist of that station during that period is the soundtrack of my youth and what i remember most fondly about living in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. that BINGENHEIMER was instrumental in the promotion of many of those bands made him immediately interesting to me.
which gets to the interesting core of the film: BINGENHEIMER's apparent loneliness. for someone who was universally celebrated as such a well-regarded tastemaker he comes across as a particularly damaged individual, on obsessive and empath who channeled his fandom into a career of sorts. he is not a leech, i want to get that straight. if anything he has had a benevolent effect on the careers of scores of influential artists, gaining little other than access. what is sad is the lack of connection he has with people, no close relationships. there is a scene where he is rejected on the phone by someone who didnt see him as more than a friend. the rejection is excruciating to watch. for all his connections and celebrity acquaintances, he comes across as a vacuous individual. someone who needs validation from celebrity culture.
again, i dont think he is a vulture. he has jumpstarted numerous the careers of numerous notable artists and it is apparent he is genuinely beloved and has lots of goodwill in the music industry. but there is that sense of the superficiality of it all.
and it feels tragic.
this is a documentary well worth checking out. its been film i think about constantly and makes me examine everything my intentions with everything i do with DEER GOD.
due to their complex songs written in odd time signatures with with lyrics that had literary ambition, RUSH has had a cult following since the 1970s and are very much an acquired taste. some people can't get past GEDDY LEE's vocals, others find them pretentious.
in their documentary RUSH: BEHIND THE LIGHTED STAGE (BANGER FILMS, 2010) directors (and fellow CANADIANS) SCOTT MCFADYEN and SAM DUNN lovingly showcase the trajectory of their career both from the perspective of the band and their dedicated fans, which include prominent musicians like TRENT REZNOR (NINE INCH NAILS), TAYLOR HAWKINS (FOO FIGHTERS), VINNIE PAUL (PANTERA), LES CLAYPOOL (PRIMUS), DANNY CAREY (TOOL), ZAKK WYLDE (OZZY OSBOURNE, BLACK LABEL SOCIETY), SEBASTIAN BACH (SKID ROW), MIKE PORTNOY (DREAM THEATER), KIRK HAMMETT (METALLICA), TIM COMMERFORD (RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE), JASON MCGERR (DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE), JIMMY CHAMBERLAIN and BILLY CORGAN (SMASHING PUMPKINS) as well as contemporaries like GENE SIMMONS (KISS) and MICK BOX (URIAH HEEP) and entertainment industry heavyweights like JACK BLACK (TENACIOUS D), MATT STONE (SOUTH PARK) and CLIFF BURSTEIN (Q PRIME MANAGEMENT). for some it was their technical wizardry on their instruments that drew them in while for others it was their expansive palette of sounds which mirrored thematic depths of their lyrics that inspired such devotion. what comes across is their genuine affinity for the honest, authentic nature of these three unassuming, well-adjusted CANADIANS.
in GEDDY LEE and ALEX LIFESON you have two second generation immigrant kids that found each other in middle school in the suburbs outside TORONTO. LEE was the son of HOLOCAUST survivors of POLISH descent while LIFESON the son of a YUGOSLAVIAN (SERBIAN) family the immigrated shortly after WWII. in both you had families that instilled hard work and kindness, which in other words meant they had a typical CANADIAN upbringing. i feel like this was a key to their success since, ironically, it freed them from worrying about success. they had a balanced sense of identity rooted from an early age that made them take the successes and failures of their unusual career in stride with a sense of humor, but also intense focus on the craft itself. a very strong puritan ethic seems to mark them.
there is a definite sub-narrative throughout the film that gets into the idea of RUSH as a cultural phenomena and the idea of not being "cool" and being an "outcast" that arguably defines the fan experience. most of the famous musicians (interestingly the majority of them being notable bassists and drummers) seem to have a confrontational approach to this subject as they dismissed that and liked them because they liked them. REZNOR in particular expands on his appreciation for the choices made by the band in terms of their inclusion of technology and sense of arrangement to incorporate an expansive set of instruments (including the keyboards, synthesizers, etc). the one voice i could have left without hearing predictably was CORGAN who seemed to whine about how RUSH wasn't properly appreciated by the music critics. at times it seems like he was projecting himself and the legacy of his own band onto RUSH in a visceral way which was annoying and completely self-serving. you really get the sense that RUSH don't care about people in opposition or indifferent to the group. their concern is their own sense of creative evolution and those that appreciate it. CORGAN's whining just seemed completely counterproductive and i resent him for it.
that aside one of the things i most appreciated about the band was their sense of mutual respect and genuine love for one another. this was seen when the uncomfortable talk about when drummer NEIL PEART's wife and daughter passed away separately and in quick succession. the band gave him his space and were willing to hang it up. this dedication continues now after his passing from cancer. RUSH is GEDDY LEE, ALEX LIFESON and NEIL PEART. period.
quickly about PEART, they go into his awkwardness growing up and discovery of drums as a means of self-expression but for me the most interesting thing about his career was how in his later years he took drum lessons from jazz icon FREDDIE GRUBER and effectively altered his playing style. that amazes me his devotion to evolving and learning new aspects to his instrument that continued until his passing. even when he was celebrated as one of the greatest living drummers, he retaught himself from the ground up. just so inspiring.
if you don't like RUSH, i get it. but even so this film may be worth your time, even if it is a love letter to the greatest CANADIAN band by a CANADIAN production company which received grants from the CANADIAN government to make this production happen. i recognize all that and still recommend it.
sometimes bands just materialize organically.
that seems to be how SCOTTISH INDIE ROCK band BELLE & SEBASTIAN bubbled-up from obscurity as a cohort of local semi-serious musicians coalesced around the bedroom songs of leader STUART MURDOCH as depicted in the IF YOU'RE FEELING SINISTER (PITCHFORK, 2013) documentary. largely an oral history with band members STEVIE JACKSON, RICHARD COLBURN, ISOBEL CAMPBELL, CHRISTOPHER GEDDES, SARAH MARTIN, MICK COOKE, STUART DAVID as well as JEEPSTER RECORDINGS co-founders MARK JONES and STEFANO D'ANDREA and recording engineer TONY DOOGAN all contributing to the band's narrative, what becomes apparent is how these tightly constructed and highly literate songs became the focus straight away. fellow singer ISOBEL CAMPBELL was both a muse and a melodic counterpoint to that of MURDOCH. probably most important in that evolution was the addition of the more season local musician STEVIE JACKSON who helped provide a more polished sheen to the material which could have easily been construed as TWEE otherwise. in fact my argument is that BELLE & SEBASTIAN is kind of the middle point between THE SMITHS and CALVIN JOHNSON.
the music itself has a naive and intimate quality, as if written by a nebbish bookworm for a small audience of friends in a used bookstore. its almost anti-rock rock music. no swing. no posturing. just bare instrumentation with lilting, whimsically melancholic melodies draped modestly over. makes perfect sense that JACK BLACK's character in HIGH FIDELITY (BUENA VISTA, 2000) referred to them as "BELLE & SAD-BASTIAN." MURDOCH himself was once athletic and outgoing before he became unwell with CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME and largely stuck to his home with his parents. the band proved a reason to get out, physically and spiritually.
in fact, the evolution of his songs largely follows this conscious reintegration into society, to a point. his songs blossomed as he began writing more and more about everyday observations that he made riding buses around GLASGOW on the way to band practice and local shows. the songs became about normal people from perspective the perspective of a nonparticipating outside observer. this in my opinion made the lyrical content that much more potent, songs became about complicated emotions from someone attempting to understand them as if for the first time. almost childlike. conceptually it is very similar to the creative work of BRIAN WILSON, in that the lyrics are a projection of an ideal and a desire to be like the characters in the songs. its almost tragic in a sense.
what i didn't know about their collective story was that they were chosen by a local college's music business class to be the focus of a semester-long project to promote a local act. when their album TIGERMILK (JEEPSTER, 1996) was recorded with promotional and administrative assistance from this class, the students in fact found representation for the group as they met with labels. it all actually worked! how crazy is that?
the more i learn about them the more they resemble THE SMITHS to me in that they signed with an INDIE label (JEEPSTER RECORDINGS) and didn't release singles from albums, didn't appear in press photos and basically didn't do interviews (ok so that last one doesn't pan out as MORRISSEY was a media troll before that term ever got coined). for MURDOCH and the group it was all about leveraging control on their fragile project with as little outside interference as possible, be that record companies, the media or the slippery uphill chase towards fame.
great documentary that offers a personal look at a great album by a unique band at the top of their powers. definitely worth watching if you are a fan of the band, INDIE ROCK or intellectually satisfying music in general.
i recently came across this BBC4 documentary MARTY FELDMAN: SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (BBC, 2006) about the legendary BRITISH writer/comedian MARTY FELDMAN. obviously for me and many other MEL BROOKS fanatics, he will always have a special place in my heart for his iconic role of IGOR in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1974). i wasnt aware before viewing this documentary the full extent of his career or the distinct comedy lineage he saw himself a part of.
first and foremost this film emphasizes his central identity as a writer. this makes sense in that his first successes, much like PETER SELLERS, was on BRITISH radio comedies which obviously put a premium on the written word. from there he transitioned into television as a writer and became a noted collaborator, in fact most of the notable interviewees of this documentary including MONTY PYTHON members JOHN CLEESE and MICHAEL PALIN, lionize him for such. working on BRITISH television series during the 1960s such as DAVID FROST's THE FROST REPORT (BBC, 1966-1967), AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW (ITV, 1967), as well as his own MARTY (BBC, 1968) seems to be when he was in his element as both a writer and a performer. being a jazz aficionado, FELDMAN seemed to find a through-line between the improvisation required in both JAZZ and COMEDY. that boundless imagination and fearless ability to see possibilities within a comedic premise, especially during the writing process, appears to be where his strengths lay.
that incredible CREATIVITY, IMAGINATION and FEARLESSNESS also informed his performances and mirrored that of his comedic idol, silent film icon BUSTER KEATON. this may seem odd initially given his background as a writer, but after watch several sketches from his 60s BRITISH television series, it is abundantly apparent what a gifted physical comedian FELDMAN was. his timing, commitment and charisma jumps off the screen, much like watching KEATON in a classic set piece. its unfortunate that FELDMAN's career mirrored that of KEATON as well, both being swallowed and spit out by an industry that cannibalizes its own talent. FELDMAN died suddenly of a heart attack on location in MEXICO during a film shoot for a long forgotten film, so his story feels incomplete. he had aspirations that didnt materialize in HOLLYWOOD and was rendered largely a footnote at the end of his career.
i think that was the impetus for this film, to shine a light on his contributions to BRITISH COMEDY in all its mid-century phases, as well as his talent and generosity in the writer's room. it seemed he was in his element within a group supportive group context, which is the antithesis of the corporate, antiseptic and largely joyless mindset of HOLLYWOOD film production. he was an ideal TEAM PLAYER that excelled when put in an ensemble setting of elite talent and for some reason that seems distinctly BRITISH to me. or at the very least it isnt AMERICAN.
interesting film worth investigating on a notable yet criminally overlooked COMEDY giant.
the recent documentary DEVIL AT THE CROSSROADS (ALL RISE FILMS, 2019) is an uneven documentary concerning DELTA BLUES icon and AMERICAN folk-hero ROBERT JOHNSON, who is a pivotal figure of the first order in 20th century world culture writ large.
this film attempts to bring context to his life, both in terms of his personal narrative and his influence on generations of musicians. participating musicians include TAJ MAHAL, KEB MO, KEITH RICHARDS, JOHN P. HAMMOND (son of the legendary JOHN H HAMMOND of COLUMBIA RECORDS), BONNIE RAITT and ERIC CLAPTON.
i think where this brief (under and hour) documentary excels is in its dispeling of popular myths surrounding the BLUES that came out of the MISSISSIPPI DELTA region in the pre-WWII, post-reconstruction era. this includes the misconception that the BLUES came out of the church. if anything, according to this documentary, the southern BAPTIST churches of were the ones that demonized BLUES musicians, who often played for the sharecroppers while in the fields as well as at BLACK-owned juke joints at the edges of small towns. it was these southern BAPTIST reverends that popularized the idea of JOHNSON selling his soul to the devil in order to become a gifted guitarist.
the documentary even goes so far as to decode some of the lyrics. for instance, references to women in lyrics by BLUES musicians that were played in the fields where not references to objects of affection who treated them poorly, instead they represented the plantation owners and how they exploited them and their race. specific to JOHNSON are coded references to the KLU KLUX KLAN, evading lynching and HOODOO beliefs in nation sacks.
what comes across in the documentary is the struggle of a supremely gifted songwriter and musician who became proficient through dedication to his craft despite traumatic loss and isolation. his mother's first husband was a successful business who was run out by the clan, leaving her in the process. JOHNSON's father was a local he barely knew. she eventually settled with a sharecropper after years of wandering from town to town who would beat a young JOHNSON for not committing to working the fields. for JOHNSON, the fields was something to avoid, something to transcend. it is the belief by some that this breaking away was what made the BAPTIST church so envious of these truly independent musicians.
less interesting in this documentary is their brief run through of how WHITE AMERICA got interested in his music and the influence of his playing and songwriting on later generations of BLUES players and ROCK AND ROLL musicians, all who essentially are playing on variations of his music.
what particularly annoyed me about this film was the mention of the "27 Club" of prominent musicians that passed on unexpectedly at that age at the peak of their powers. its a tired cliche that isn't deserving of mention in the telling of JOHNSON's story and actually diminishes the seriousness of his work (as well as that of JIM MORRISON, JIMI HENDRIX, AMY WINEHOUSE, JANIS JOPLIN, KURT COBAIN, etc). ditto for the constant mentions of him selling his soul to the devil where it is said at face value. seems to me that whenever someone or something is beyond comprehension, our knee-jerk reaction is to ascribe some sort of divinity or wacky supernatural fairy dust on top of it. JOHNSON didn't pay any price for his talents by being poisoned at a juke joint. he hit on the wrong person's girl and paid the brutal consequences of that decision. the real tragedy is that nobody spoke out about it, because in essence he was on the edge of society, even black society.
because he was, after all, a BLUES musician. if anything he sacrificed himself to their escapism, their religious delusions, their hypocrisy.
im with the grandson of JOHNSON who states that the meaning of the crossroads is what each of us is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve greatness. i say amen to that.
dedicated to his close friend since childhood, kindred spirit and deceased former bandmate D. BOON, WE JAM ECONO: THE STORY OF THE MINUTEMEN (ROCKET FUEL FILMS, 2005) is an intimate documentary largely narrated by MIKE WATT about his former band, the highly idiosyncratic and influential 1980s HARDCORE band THE MINUTEMEN.
hailing from SAN PEDRO just as the SOUTH BAY was taking over the LOS ANGELES music scene with a more volatile and aggressive wave of PUNK ROCK that included the likes of BLACK FLAG, CIRCLE JERKS and THE DESCENDENTS, THE MINUTEMEN represented the conceptual and artistic vanguard of the scene. their lyrics were opaque and their sound kinetic yet off-kilter, skittish and dare i say it, funky. in a scene where subtlety was not the norm, both sonically and in terms of lyrical content, THE MINUTEMEN effectively expanded the out realms of the genre in the same way HUSKER DU had done in their respective scene at the time.
the core of the band existed before HARDCORE emerged, but in that scene they saw a freedom and artistic opportunity. D. BOON was an accomplished visual artist and had a way with lyrics where he could evoke images with a minimum amount of words. this efficiency likewise found its way to his guitar playing, which borrowed from various genres and transcended the extreme buzzsaw tempos of his label-mate and fellow scene participants, BLACK FLAG. in essence they had a chemistry that came from years of camaraderie and basically exemplified the DIY ethos of PUNK ROCK. they were completely self-made and unique.
can't say the same for the construction of the documentary itself. it drags a bit and has a very uneven pacing throughout. it could use another edit, which is unfortunate as the band definitely deserves better. but where it lacks in professional sheen it makes up for in content. its rough appearance may even make the film a better conduit for information as it provides a sense of intimacy, especially with regards to its interview footage.
this film includes archival live performances and then-recent interviews with the likes of peers such as IAN MCKAYE (MINOR THREAT), JELLO BIAFRA (DEAD KENNEDYS), MILO AUKERMAN (THE DESCENDENTS), KEITH MORRIS (BLACK FLAG / CIRCLE JERKS), J MASCIS (DINOSAUR JR), MIKE MILLS (R.E.M.), DEZ CADENA, CHUCK DUKOWSKI & HENRY ROLLINS (BLACK FLAG), KURT KIRKWOOD (MEAT PUPPETS), JOHN DOE (X), FLEA (RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS / FEAR), THURSTON MOORE & LEE RANALDO (SONIC YOUTH), ROBERT HOLZMAN (SACCHARINE TRUST), RICHARD HELL (TELEVISION / THE VOIDOIDS) and COLIN NEWMAN (WIRE) among many others.
worth checking out only if you are a deep fan of the genre or the artist, but may be less interesting for those not familiar or eager to explore either. there are other documentaries that are arguably a better introduction to the scene in general like AMERICAN HARDCORE (AHC PRODUCTIONS, 2006) or PUNK: ATTITUDE (3DD PRODUCTIONS, 2005).
photo & text by nacrowe
L7 is the shit.
just wanted to get that out of the way right at the beginning. i got their album BRICKS ARE HEAVY (SLASH, 1992) my senior of high school in the early 2000s after reading somewhere that BUTCH VIG produced them and that they were part of the early ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene before it blew up. when i first heard them i remember thinking that this band is so heavy, so political and just so incredibly badass. like i stumbled on my new favorite band. specifically songs from that album like "SHITLIST," "WARGASM," "EVERGLADE" and, of course, "PRETEND WE'RE DEAD" as well as "FAST AND FRIGHTENING," "FUEL MY FIRE," and "ANDRES" from other albums just made me so content as an angry recently relocated teenager stuck in a boring suburban hell-hole. it was just the aggression, attitude and assault of their sound. very similar experience to when i discovered THE GERMS a few years before and GG ALLIN a few years later.
i recently came across this documentary L7: PRETEND WE'RE DEAD (BLUE HATS CREATIVE, 2016) which follows their career from navigating the concurrent LOS ANGELES 80s SUNSET STRIP / HARDCORE PUNK scenes to riding the ALTERNATIVE ROCK wave of the 90s as it ebbed and inevitably waned. interviews with band members DONITA SPARKS, SUZI GARDNER, DEMETRI PLAKAS and JENNIFER FINCH as well as the likes of SHIRLEY MANSON (GARBAGE), ALLISON WOLFE (BRATMOBILE/SEX STAINS), LYDIA LUNCH, VALERIE AGNEW (7 YEAR BITCH), JOAN JETT, LOUISE POST (VERUCA SALT), EXENE CERVENKA (X), ALLISON ROBERTSON (THE DONNAS), CSS, BRODY DALLE (THE DISTILLERS/SPINNERETTE), KRIST NOVOSELIC (NIRVANA) provide context to their ability to conquer the competition and, even if misogynist fans or music magazine editors couldnt get past their gender. it sucks having to even bring up gender at all, since it has literally nothing to do with their musicianship, but the fact is that stories like theirs is long overdue within the context of music history. it is too often overlooked. hopefully this and other documentaries that have popped up over the past decade (THE PUNK SINGER: A FILM ABOUT KATHLEEN HANNA, JOAN JETT BAD REPUTATION, PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER, PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE) will begin to reshape that unfortunate narrative.
i remember watching an interview with GARBAGE once where they described the beginning of the millennium as a pivotal moment in their career, basically because file-sharing had cut into their record sales. L7 ended in 2001 but little mention is made regarding such factors as widespread piracy. sales dwindled after HUNGRY FOR STINK (SLASH, 1994) only matched its predecessor, BRICKS ARE HEAVY (SLASH, 1992) in sales and they were eventually dropped. i mean it all makes sense that they were never huge because of said reasons earlier, they were authentically aggressive with attitude and a bludgeoning sonic assault. they were too original i guess. i thought it was real interesting that the only mention of technology was how fans gathered online and effectively forced the band to reunite in 2015 and tour.
this is mentioned in the film, which released in 2016, but it also makes sense that they released a new album in 2019 on JOAN JETT's label. women supporting and promoting women. L7 did the same when they started ROCK FOR CHOICE nonprofit back in the 1990s to promote FEMALE REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, they just put themselves out there. im glad that they are similarly being supported by the wider rock community writ large in recent years.
that and they came back to take on TRUMP with their latest album and how can you not love that?
in the mid 1990s THE FLAMING LIPS were band in flux. their guitar player, whose unique playing style defined their aesthetic, left them after one modestly commercially successful record and a follow-up that flopped. it was at this point that THE FLAMING LIPS did what few bands in danger of being dropped from a major label have the courage to do.
they got weird. like really weird.
THE SOFT BULLETIN (PITCHFORK, 2012) documentary is an oral history with THE FLAMING LIPS frontman WAYNE COYNE, guitarist STEVEN DROZD, bassist MICHAEL IVINS and producer/engineer DAVE FRIDMANN all testifying to their headspace at the time and how that informed the spirit of experimentation that resulted in the "parking lot experiments" and ultimately two of the most sonically ambitious albums of the 1990s, ZAIREEKA (WARNER BROS, 1997) and THE SOFT BULLETIN (WARNER BROS, 1999).
personally i just think it was some stroke of mad carnival genius that they even convinced (WARNER BROS to put out ZAIREEKA, a four CD set meant to be listened to simultaneously on separate systems, in the first place. i tried it once at a friend's apartment after work the summer after college and it sounded so foreign to me. it still sounds that way to me. but THE SOFT BULLETIN is another matter altogether, since guitarist RONALD JONES left the group they made the unconventional decision to make a guitar-less rock album. previous albums had either a lo-fi aesthetic in the vein of THE BUTTHOLE SURFERS or a more song-oriented fuzzed-out numbers not far from onetime label-mates JANE'S ADDICTION.
this guitar-less approach instead of resulting a sound that was cold, distant and inhuman like GARY NUMAN, they went the orchestral route, as in film soundtracks. it was like they went from videocassette to cinemascope. the palette widened and so did the level of lyrical and sonic ambition. all this was thanks to midi and a healthy dose of hutzpah at diving in the deep end of recording "dont's" with engineer FRIDMANN. like detuning keyboards from each other. who does that?
the documentary basically goes into lyrical content and basic production techniques in the standout tracks "RACE FOR THE PRIZE," "A SPOONFUL WEIGHS A TON," "THE SPIDERBITE SONG," "FEELING YOURSELF DISINTEGRATE" and "WAITIN' FOR A SUPERMAN," all fan favorites and staples of their legendary live shows.
what always gets me about THE FLAMING LIPS is the earnestness of their lyrics to the point of naivety which ironically cut the deepest. maybe its because they are so direct and unadorned that they bypass whatever bullshit meter we all have hardwired in our skulls. the music matches and even overpowers these ambitions, creating a loop that only amplifies and heightens the listener to their message. its an upbeat, celebratory record about deep despair. its quite a feat.
this documentary is well worth checking out if you are fan of the band or great INDIE ROCK and ALTERNATIVE ROCK in general. whats great about THE FLAMING LIPS is that in the intervening years they have only gotten weirder and more ambitious. im always interested in what they cooking up next.
this perfectly competent yet entirely pedestrian documentary concerning the creation of EXILE ON MAIN ST. (ROLLING STONES RECORDS, 1972) suffers from a lack of inspiration. little connection is made in STONES IN EXILE (PASSION PICTURES, 2010) between the songs created and the disjointed process they sprung out from. at best this documentary seemed like a wasted opportunity and at worst a cash grab by the band, management or even EAGLE ROCK, who distributed it.
book-ended by trite, uninformed musings by the likes of WILL.I.AM, JACK WHITE SHERYL CROW, LIZ PHAIR, BENICIO DEL TORO and some random dude from KINGS OF LEON. i get that they were trying to present this classic record to a new generation, but the fact that these participants were unaware of basic facts surrounding the record only makes their inclusion that much more confounding. was PATTI SMITH, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, TOM PETTY, JOHN FOGERTY, PAUL MCCARTNEY or anyone else that may have had some actual cultural insight into the group not available that day? makes no sense to me. this is a documentary after all.
what did work well were the interview contributions by the likes of KEITH RICHARDS, his ex-wife ANITA PALLENBERG and session saxophone player BOBBY KEYS. you got the sense from them that evading the punitive BRITISH tax code and leaving abroad along the southern coast of FRANCE suited RICHARDS just fine. his laid-back bohemian, vagabond lifestyle was well-suited for an unconventional recording setup in which inspiration happened while the band was doing other things. if anything i feel like this documentary helped provide context to his excellent memoir LIFE (linked HERE).
MICK JAGGER comes off guarded and bored with the topic. if not for RICHARDS this documentary, as expressed earlier, would have been entirely redundant and necessary. i wouldn't recommend watching this, but i would highly suggest you check out RICHARDS' memoir, which is one of the most compelling and insightful i have come across in recent years. that book is well-worth your time if you have any interest in THE ROLLING STONES, THE BRITISH INVASION or the evolution of 20th century popular music in western culture.
the VICE subsidiary NOISEY which produces content on its YOUTUBE channel dedicated to largely underground aspects of global MUSICAL CULTURE did a deep dive a few years ago with their seven-part series NOLA: LIFE DEATH & HEAVY BLUES FROM THE BAYOU (NOISEY, 2014) into the origins and legacy of SLUDGE METAL and its LOUISIANA origins.
in essence this series investigated specifically that music of DOWN members and proud LOUISIANANS JIMMY BOWER (EYEHATEGOD), KIRK WINDSTEIN (CROWBAR), PEPPER KEENAN (CORROSION OF CONFORMITY), and PHIL ANSELMO (PANTERA, SUPERJOINT RITUAL) as well as members of ACID BATH and GOATWHORE among others. in essence these musicians were heavily influenced by their surroundings. rural living and laid back southern vocal affectations manifested in rhythm tempos that were decidedly relaxed and slower in cadence. this tempo shift is in direct opposition to the concurrent strains of THRASH METAL and DEATH METAL that took place in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. in case you find this a little jarring, its important to consider that JAZZ, another LOUSIANA contribution to the AMERICAN musical tradition, was rooted in the STORYVILLE red light district of NEW ORLEANS where musicians would shift their tempos to the rhythms of a brothel's occupants in lieu of securing a tip.
SLUDGE METAL is a thick, brutal METAL sub-genre which traces its roots to bands like THE MELVINS (from rural WASHINGTON state) and particular BLACK SABBATH (famously from the industrial wasteland of the MIDLANDS in ENGLAND), but it is hard to argue that it found a true home in LOUISIANA. again, interesting to see how landscape, location and even linguistics impact art and music. when you consider that SLUDGE METAL has influenced the likes of the even more extreme and sonically stretched-out explorations of modern DRONE METAL and POST METAL which revel in the nuances and textures of space and distortion, it is intriguing to consider what spices have been added to that gumbo. who knows where its all heading next which is pretty exciting.
in summation, this documentary is well-constructed and worthy of further investigation if you are so inclined.
any discussion of MILES DAVIS is bound to be complicated as the man is an icon of 20th century western culture on par with ANDY WARHOL, IGOR STRAVINSKY ERNEST HEMINGWAY, JOHN LENNON or PABLO PICASSO. at the height of his powers, his music was just that transcendent and untouchable, yet ironically accessible and meaningful to the layperson.
the STANLEY NELSON JR-directed documentary MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL (FIRELIGHT, 2020) is a capable attempt at presenting his story, which itself is the story of AMERICA and all its enduring idealistic optimism and gut-wrenching failings. in DAVIS you have a supremely gifted musician who could hold his own with the best of the BEBOP era (i.e. CHARLIE PARKER and DIZZY GILLESPIE) yet made his mark as a composer and bandleader that reached his heights via creating space for collaborators to shine (GIL EVANS, JOHN COLTRANE, WAYNE SHORTER, HERBIE HANCOCK, etc). at the same time he was domineering and abusively violent to the women in his life. he forced his wife FRANCIS TAYLOR DAVIS to withdraw during rehearsals from the broadway debut of WEST SIDE STORY. think about that. he forced her because he thought her role was as a housewife and couldn't stand that others could appreciate her and give her attention. at the same time he celebrated her beauty by forcing COLUMBIA RECORDS to place a picture of his wife FRANCIS on various album covers (instead of white models). very interesting and totally contradictory. he was a deeply damaged person who utilized music, as the film argues, to relay a sense of vulnerability he couldnt present in real life.
and that is where race comes into the picture as a major theme. for me the most compelling point of examination was how race intersected with his career. two particularly poignant moments are 1) his return from FRANCE after touring there in the mid 1940s and 2) getting bludgeoned by racist cops in NYC outside a venue bearing his name shortly after the release of KIND OF BLUE (COLUMBIA, 1959).
with the former he experienced a level of respect and mutual admiration never received stateside. in PARIS he found himself speaking with the likes of JULIETTE GRECO, PABLO PICASSE, JEAN-PAUL SARTRE and others as equals. returning stateside left him depressed and ultimately into the warm embrace of heroin addiction.
the idea that even after gaining the critical recognition and mass-audience admiration for his seminal record work, that he would be beat up in NYC for being black is just so depressing. it seems in the UNITED STATES that whatever your talents, in the end you are still judged by your skin tone. nothing has changed in the intervening years, seems with the advance of TRUMP that level of bigotry is only more out in the moment now.
MILES DAVIS was flawed. severely so. but his music is renowned for its singular soothing voice which relays a way of being that seems possible yet just out of reach. it is the music of possibilities. he was an innovator that will be remembered as such, though by the likes of this film, it would seem if he were among us now he'd not be concerned with past accomplishments and accolades and be fully investigating and seeking out new challenges.
with today's technology its interesting to think of what he could have achieved moving forward.
TRICKY DICK AND THE MAN IN BLACK (ALL RISE FILMS, 2018) follows the path of COUNTRY MUSIC icon JOHNNY CASH and "pun intended" the line he walked between the political fracas that defined the VIETNAM WAR era.
i think CASH's place in the pantheon of AMERICAN CULTURE is fully secure in part due to his sharing of the spotlight in the late 1960s on his namesake television show where he introduced MIDDLE AMERICA to songwriters and voices they may not have been familiar with or had negative opinions about: artists like JONI MITCHELL, BOB DYLAN, NEIL YOUNG, RAY CHARLES, LINDA RONSTADT and PETE SEEGER. the generosity that showed endeared him to the growing counterculture and FOLK movements that were then emerging, but make no mistake, the man himself was the very embodiment of the heartland and all that entails.
the main narrative of this documentary follows RICHARD NIXON's troubled presidency as he continues the unpopular war he inherited and expands it into CAMBODIA as a way of taking the fight to the NORTH VIETNAMESE ARMY and the VIETCONG. famously, NIXON rose to power through the notorious SOUTHERN STRATEGY that saw him adopt the politics of grievance and adeptly exploited racial divisions. this strategy is still very much a part of REPUBLICAN sloganeering to this day. what NIXON saw with his rise was a cultural chasm between the unbridled optimism of the newly politically and economically empowered youth culture of the BABY BOOMERS (now a voting bloc) who listened to BRITISH INVASION rock bands from the UNITED KINGDOM as well as homegrown acolytes alike.
he saw this as a threat. famously he harassed JOHN LENNON through deportation threats and others he saw as agitators that could potential galvanize the youth against him. enter CASH whom he invited to the WHITE HOUSE to play a concert in support. CASH at this point was in the uncomfortable position of not wanting to appear to support NIXON explicitly while also feeling a patriotic obligation to appear when you are called by your country, in this case the commander-in-chief himself.
the climax of this respectful interaction as his playing of his song "WHAT IS TRUTH" which addressed in its lyrics war, drug addiction, intergenerational differences and the use of politics as a tool for the institutional mistreatment of minorities. all this with NIXON in attendance. a few weeks later WATERGATE happened and NIXON was later removed from office, but that moment became a a part of the CASH legacy and gained him credence with AMERICANS of every stripe.
watching this film, you can see the beginnings of bifurcated cultural divide that separates RED from BLUE, RURAL from SUBURBAN. for a moment CASH was able to walk that line with grace. something we are missing at this political moment indeed.
i spent a year in JAPAN teaching secondary ENGLISH at a BRITISH curriculum international school. it was an intense experience, partly because i was being schooled on the IB SYSTEM as i was teaching it. i had been abroad for years at that point, but JAPAN was the first time i truly felt isolated. not isolated out of want or need for something material, but socially it was pretty brutal. when i left a year later for MYANMAR it wasn't a difficult departure.
when decompressing after my work day in my apartment at night i would often sit idly and meditate, sometimes listening to JAZZ. for me COLTRANE, as well as THELONIOUS MONK, were my preferred co-conspirators. you just put it on and you were elevated to a plane above consciousness. it helped me because being alone in a foreign country you are cognizant of being watched and judged and especially being a teacher, you are hyper-aware of how you communicate. that thinking part of my brain was hard to shut off. from my personal experience, COLTRANE is intertwined with my experiences experiencing JAPAN.
until i watched the recent documentary CHASING TRANE (CREW NECK, 2016), i was wholly unaware of his reverence for JAPAN and their suffering, as well as the fact that his final tour was there as well. for me that seems fitting just because his music transmits a deep well of experience and emotion underneath a cool exterior that is inviting yet alien. you feel as if he is a shaman transporting you to a new level of consciousness. very similar to my exploration of zen meditation at the time.
the documentary itself is a fairly dry, yet faithful and loving ode to the JAZZ musician by his immediate family, friends and colleagues including SONNY ROLLINS, JIMMY HEATH, REGGIE WORKMAN, BENNY GOLSON and admirers like CARLOS SANTANA, CORNELL WEST, BILL CLINTON. his voice is played by celebrated actor DENZEL WASHINGTON.
a big theme is the spiritual nature of his music which is rooted in his formative experiences in NORTH CAROLINA where he was the grandson of two ministers. despite the fact that by age 12 most of the older generation (including his father) had all unexpectedly and tragically passed over a 2 year period, he carried on with an inner strength and resilience that followed him his whole life. helped him kick heroin and keep his focus on music and being a good father and husband. an incredible observation made in the film was his ability to utilize vocal phrasing patterns in his soloing, most notably in ALABAMA released after the BIRMINGHAM bombings in the late 60s which were partly based on MARTIN LUTHER KING's rhetorical stylings. traveling to NAGASAKI for a concert he was similarly glued to his flute in an attempt to transpose the rhythm of JAPAN for his later composition "PEACE ON EARTH."
it is always a pleasant surprise when life and art dovetail. now the connection between COLTRANE and JAPAN is set in my mind.
listen to the man's music. that's all i can advocate. it transcends speech, thought and hits to the core of life itself.
THE STOOGES were a primal, feral outfit out of DETROIT that by all accounts imploded and failed. except they didnt. calling them arguably the greatest ROCK AND ROLL is not hyperbole, they are the truth. luckily i got to see them back in the early 2000s at JONES BEACH when IGGY POP reunited with the ASHETON BROTHERS (and MIKE WATT filled in for the deceased DAVE ALEXANDER). they sounded ferocious and i still consider that night a gift.
the JIM JARMUSCH-directed documentary GIMME DANGER (MAGNOLIA PICURES, 2016) attempts to harness and present what made this lightning-in-a-bottle group of misfits so special, complete with rare footage and interviews with various members, both living and deceased (RIP RON & SCOTT ASHTON, STEVE MACKAY & DAVE ALEXANDER). what is so interesting about their career is that their three albums were all commercial failures and by the time RAW POWER (COLUMBIA, 1973) was released the members had largely fallen back into obscurity, exception obviously being IGGY.
what JARMUSCH does a great job through his editing is present a narrative that is largely focused on the main members and not just IGGY. there are several clever animations that drive home their humble MICHIGAN roots and the lengths at which they foot to exist.
watching this i cant help but think back to discussions we had at DEER GOD when our recording studio was up and running about the nature of great records. my feeling was that it was all about the listener, how they completed a cycle initiated by the artist. that feel, intention and some weird alchemy has to happen that transcends sound quality and production values. THE STOOGES are prime examples of such. RAW POWER is famous for its horrible mix but the songs transcend because they make you feel something.
i'm happy to report that this documentary provides some contest on the members but ultimately showcases their ability to produce music live that connects and elevates their audience to a higher plane. and i can't put my finger on how, it just is. if it was a formula with a checklist, believe me some studio rat wouldve figured it out by now. would've been a plugin for that by now.
the stooges are the real deal and i couldn't recommend this documentary even more strongly.
its funny with JOE STRUMMER and THE CLASH i have kept at arms length. i am familiar with their catalogue and enjoy it but i always considered them a bit of an anomaly in terms of early PUNK ROCK. to my ears they were a bit slick and rather contrived. they sang about "LONDON'S BURNING" but the music seemed contained and under control, unlike say "ANARCHY IN THE UK" by the SEX PISTOLS which i can easily see as the soundtrack to LONDON burning to the ground. i also never knew what to make of their global ambitions, infusing their sound with rhythms and lyrics dedicated to rebel groups and liberation struggles in faraway lands. all seemed very colonialist to me. maybe its the fact that my grandmother is ENGLISH and is convinced they gave the world "culture." maybe THE CLASH and STRUMMER in particular hit that blindspot of mine and just didn't come off convincing.
how pleasantly shocking it was when viewing JULIEN TEMPLE's crafty documentary JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN (FILMFOUR, 2007) to learn that this iconic frontman was, in fact, the son of a left-leaning BRITISH diplomat and grew up the world over. he was born in TURKEY and lived in places like MEXICO, IRAN, ZIMBABWE, INDIA throughout his childhood. this coupled with surviving ENGLAND's notoriously draconian boarding school culture makes me question my assumptions about the man. probably because they mirror my own experiences growing up abroad and surviving boarding school (ha!). seems maybe he was genuine in his affinity for world culture after all.
also the man knew about suffering. the isolation of boarding school didnt come without consequences and his brother's suicide makes quick note of such. i think before i knew his backstory, i always saw STRUMMER as a culture opportunist. someone who fiddled with folk and hippiedom only to find PUNK ROCK as a vehicle for his ambitions that maybe didn't align perfectly with their dictum for nihilism and and anarchy. what this documentary show me was that in fact PUNK ROCK served as a key to unlocking his ability to take his expansive knowledge of how the world actually functioned and hold a mirror up to it in a way none of his contemporaries could. he wasn't interested in destruction but rather the deconstruction of the forces and systems that manipulate human behavior en masse. that same process can also be said to his own persona, having to strip everything back clear his identity by discarding his past associates and previous community of supporters, including THE 101ers. this new order was extremist and fanatical in nature.
for these reasons PUNK ROCK for him was that ideal vehicle, its direct messaging and fiercely confrontational, often polemical stance in relation to BRITAIN's strained relationship with the world and itself. "england's dreaming" as JOHNNY ROTTEN put it.
on a purely cinematic level, i think the way TEMPLE constructed this film was particularly ingenious. the film is essentially a campfire vigil/gathering of sorts along the banks of the RIVER THEMES across from downtown LONDON with fans, colleagues and peers relating their experiences with the man as they listen to him over the radio airwaves on the BBC WORLD SERVICE. in essence it is is a representation of how his music is what continues to bind them all. his message and his music is his legacy. its a very eloquent conceit rooted in his later life ritual of embracing campfires as a means of connecting with others. to use that as an organizing principle in a film is a novel approach which i havent seen utilized before. all talking participants were also unaccredited, another ingenious choice by TEMPLE meant to draw focus on their words. these include family members, musicians such as STEVE JONES (SEX PISTOLS), MICK JONES (THE CLASH), PAUL SIMONON (THE CLASH), BOBBY GILLESPIE (PRIMAL SCREAM), FLEA (RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS), ANTHONY KEIDIS (RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS), and BONO (U2), actors STEVE BUSCEMI, JOHNNY DEPP, MATT DILLON, JOHN CUSACK, artists BOB GRUEN and DAMIEN HIRST as well as directors JIM JARMUSCH, MARTIN SCORSESE and DON LETTS.
as much as i hate giving BONO any credit, he probably has the quote of the film when he states, and im paraphrasing here, that the legacy of JOE STRUMMER and THE CLASH was that at a moment in the late 1970s ideas trumped guitar solos in rock and roll, which provided an entry point for musicians across the world to pick up an instrument. virtuosity was not a requirement to become a viable band, just three chords and the truth as they say. not a bad legacy in the least and id argue THE CLASH more than held up their end of the bargain on providing "the truth."
well executed, cutting documentary on a PUNK ROCK icon that be should of interest to anyone interested in the subject.
photo manipulations by nacrowe
the story of MUSCLE SHOALS (EAR GOGGLES, 2013) is the kind of thing that only happens in AMERICA. its a total anomaly. deep in the heart of JIM CROW south during the very period of national transformation surrounding the civil rights movement you have a small unassuming recording studio that punched far above its weight. in fact, the music it produced has for many defined 1960s R&B with hit singles for CHESS RECORDS and ATLANTIC RECORDS from seminal black artists like ARETHA FRANKLIN, PERCY SLEDGE, WILSON PICKETT, ETTA JAMES among others.
all music is bigger than the sum of its parts, and there is a certain alchemy when all those parts work in tandem mysteriously to produce gold. that was the case with producer RICK HALL and his studio musicians "THE SWAMPERS," all unassuming locals from humble beginnings in rural ALABAMA. that chemistry between these white players is what set them apart as a unit and in league with other studio collectives such as THE WRECKING CREW and THE FUNK BROTHERS.
the documentary largely kept its focus on the individual stories of RICK HALL and THE SWAMPERS, but it would have been interesting to get their opinion about what it meant to have such transgressive music produced in a state that rejected the very humanity of the black artists that created it. i mean, they lived through the reign of terror of GEORGE WALLACE, the vocal segregationist governor of ALABAMA in the 1960s. it is such an interesting situation that seems should have been explored further. a huge letdown and missed opportunity if you ask me.
instead we learn that RICK HALL and THE SWAMPERS split over money, basically having two rival studios (FAME STUDIOS & MUSCLE SHOALS SOUND) in the same town, producing countless famous records in the process by the likes of THE ROLLING STONES, TRAFFIC, BOB DYLAN, LYNYRD SKYNYRD, SIMON & GARFUNKEL, etc.
for me this documentary works best when it speaks about the nature of creativity and the art of listening. as musicians, THE SWAMPERS and RICK HALL had a gift for listening to their artist and determining what sound would work well for them. they were not imposing anything, in fact they were trying to be as transparently and authentically behind the artist as possible.
MUSCLE SHOALS is definitely worth checking out if you have any interest in AMERICAN music or recording studios in general. a must watch.
i was back stateside a few months after this documentary came out. i can't remember if it was the summer after i finished teaching in VENEZUELA or JAPAN, but anyway i was in NYC when a relative of mine called. i'll spare mentioning this relative's name, only to state that she works in the film industry and has overseen various famous soundtracks. she called and asked if i was available later that day to attend an NPR interview at LINCOLN CENTER where they were interviewing members of THE SWAMPERS for a new unreleased documentary on MUSCLE SHOALS. she also asked if i was familiar with MUSCLE SHOALS to which i replied that they were like the equivalent of THE FUNK BROTHERS and THE WRECKING CREW, all being famous studio musician collectives. she didn't respond to those names.
i get to the NPR thing which was being recorded for a later national broadcast and within 10 minutes one of the musicians was talking about THE FUNK BROTHERS and THE WRECKING CREW and their mutual respect for one another. points to me i guess.
one is asked about a recording session and the guy was unsure of the third song he recorded with THE ROLLING STONES, my relative asked me what it was and i said "wild horses" to which she immediately yelled in front of 500+ people "WILD HORSES!" and the guy was like "oh yeah, that's right, WILD HORSES."
i almost died. couldn't believe she did that. she turned to me and something along the lines of "i knew i brought you here for a reason." its funny, i only had a passing knowledge of what MUSCLE SHOALS was and i have no idea how i knew about that song since i am not a huge STONES fan. but anyway, now that i watched the film in earnest, i had to mention this related experience with the film.
its funny, i was always under the impression i was anti-third wave SKA. i saw LESS THAN JAKE and REEL BIG FISH at WARPED TOUR years ago with the crowd skanking in unison and thought it was all beyond corny and lame. both bands were like awful, parody versions of THE SPECIALS or MADNESS, bands i liked, respected and grew up listening to. also seemed that the political roots of the genre were replaced by silliness.
just running through in my mind all of the bands i like that i now realize were part of the wave included quite a variety of bands like OPERATION IVY, THE SLACKERS, DANCE HALL CRASHERS, THE AGGROLITES, THE SUICIDE MACHINES, FISHBONE, THE AQUABATS, SAVE FERRIS, THE INTERRUPTERS, GOLDFINGER and, of course, SUBLIME and NO DOUBT. guess i have to thank the recent documentary PICK IT UP! - SKA IN THE 90s (POPMOTION PICTURES, 2019) for setting me straight on that. so maybe i was a fan all along and didnt know it.
the documentary not only chronicles the history of SKA from its JAMAICAN roots, but also conveys how its adoption by the PUNK ROCK community created a hybrid genre that bridged two communities who both had similar pre-existing self-sufficient, DIY ethos. many of the SKA bands refused to play shows that weren't all ages, over time changing how book agencies dealt with PUNK bands in general. most venues and promotes make their profits on alcohol and the fact that all these SKA bands had 8-10 players didn't make for a financially rewarding touring situation, especially with the decision to play all ages shows. just indicative of how inclusive the scene was initially and the ethos to nurture a supportive community. when it blew up in popularity everything changed (as expected).
i found it interesting that some bands saw the rise of NO DOUBT and SUBLIME as an answer to the psychological heaviness of GRUNGE and a reaction of sorts by the public to the death of KURT COBAIN. it's a similar rationale to the rise of bands like OASIS and BLUR in ENGLAND during the concurrent BRITPOP movement. i just never associated NIRVANA with paving the way for the rise of SKA bands, but now i have that connection.
like any bubble, it had its peak and then the market got saturated and the bottom fell out in the early 2000s. its the same old record industry story. the scene had effectively cannibalized itself as the fad grew in popularity. the public was SKA'd out. the documentary does a great job of showcasing global bands that have risen in the interim years in places like MEXICO, JAPAN and VENEZUELA among other places.
part of accepting this music is being open to it and its message of positive mindset and self-empowerment. at WARPED TOUR i obviously failed in that regard. but whats funny is that in college at RUTGERS i knew lots of classmates who were obsessed with this local band called STREETLIGHT MANIFESTO who werent silly or outrageous, but wrote upbeat songs about real-life. and what is not to like about that. all the bands i listed before, especially ones like THE AGGROLITES and THE SLACKERS, use the form as a means of expressing a wide range of emotions rooted in personal narratives and social realities. there is a core message there that is accessible. it also helps that their musicianship and song-craft are all top notch, but my feeling is that they are tapping into what SKA music historically was all about: messages of self-empowerment and community. for me that is the future of the genre, as much as i love the extreme cartoonish-ness of THE AQUABATS and their DEVO-inspired visuals.
HANK: FIVE YEARS FROM THE BRINK (RADICAL MEDIA, 2013) is a JOE BERLINGER (SOME KIND OF MONSTER, PARADISE LOST TRILOGY) directed documentary that allows former TREASURY SECRETARY HANK PAULSON, third under the GEORGE W. BUSH administration, to explain his response and process with regards to the 2008 financial crisis that defined his stewardship of the UNITED STATES' economy.
the format of this documentary is very much interview-based in the tradition of ERROL MORRIS, who famously is an off-camera interlocutor asking questions of his subject and challenging them. all we get is the subject's, here being PAULSON, reactions which serves as a light interrogation. this is intercut with archival footage. i appreciate this format because it very much leaves the focus of the narrative on that of the subject, not distracting side recreated events or first-person narrations. it forces the viewer to listen.
anyway, PAULSON very much says what you would expect: that the focus of TARP and propping up the banks and FANNIE MAE/FREDDIE MAC in the wake of the crisis was aimed at helping common people. he was direly afraid of a second depression, with bread lines and high unemployment. his wife gives testimony throughout about the physical tole these decisions had on him physically and mentally. i do not doubt it. i remember back then people called him "KING HANK" because he was given the power by congress to financially buttress the market however he saw fit, resulting ultimately in TARP.
he mentions the fact that all the money was made back and answered, ineffectively, longstanding critiques that the bailouts never matriculated down to the street level and that the banks merely profited off the kindness of the government's bailout. AMERICAN people always talk about "no risk-it, no biscuit" but what happens when you fail? average people loose homes. the wall street bankers got bonuses.
two points i found interesting.