Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 3)

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Realizing John’s songwriting pen had struck gold, the Beatles raced to Abbey Road on the evening of April 13, 1965 (after spending a long day filming, then doing a lengthy radio interview from a car the studio parking lot — I’m telling you, their calendars were packed) and emerged with not only a massive hit single, but also the film’s official title.

“Help!” the song is arguably one of the all-time greatest Beatles singles. Its gutsy lead vocal from John, and innovative backing vocals from Paul and George (the lyrics in the backing vocals at times actually precede the lead vocals — a minor but notable twist to the formula), backed by the powerful, Ritchie Havens-like pounding of John’s acoustic rhythm guitar (a Framus 12-string), Ringo’s flawless drumming, and the jangling, descending lead guitar lines of George (played on a Gretsch Tennessean) that almost single-handedly launched everyone from the Byrds to R.E.M, combine to create something that was probably much, much better than a song called “Eight Arms To Hold You” would have been. That name was gratefully relegated to the scrap heap.

The opening title sequence where the band performs the song was filmed on April 22.

The title sequence

The title sequence, Twickenham Studios, April 22, 1965. Lennon’s 12-string acoustic heard on the actual song is replaced by a Gibson 6-string here, but the Framus can be seen in the “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” sequence later in the film.

lennonThere is an eerie, odd moment when the Beatles are in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport (filmed at Twickenham on April 27) fleeing to the Bahamas in disguise. John’s disguise — big beard and round, wire-rimmed glasses — is exactly how he would look four years later — check the cover of 1969’s Abbey Road.

SIDE NOTE: Is Help! racist? Some modern internet reviews display a very laudable 21st-century concern that the film’s treatment of Eastern religion is, shall we say, not the most enlightened. George Harrison’s most recent biographer, Graeme Thomson, sniffs haughtily that “Help! is their least soulful, least committed project, in which alternative spirituality is mockingly played for the broadest of laughs.” Thomson may be overstating the case somewhat (and the remark was a sufficient enough irritant to the Holy Bee to inspire these blog posts.) The unnamed cult in the film does not seem to be a jibe at Hinduism, Krishnaism, or any other form of real religious worship. What they actually seem to be based on is the Thuggee, a bloodthirsty group of thieves and murderers that once terrorized the Indian subcontinent. If that’s Thomson’s idea of “alternative spirituality,” then he certainly has more issues than the film.

Lester directing Ringo and an

Lester directing Ringo and an “Indian” extra. It looks like Ringo has a 21st-century cell phone in his front pocket, but it’s a pack of cigs.

The Thuggee were also the villains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which has had its own accusations of presenting institutionalized colonial racism as if it were acceptable. The Thuggee were definitely devotees of Kali, but unlike the demon goddess demanding blood sacrifice depicted here and in Temple of Doom, Kali is a loved and accepted (if not always benevolent) member of the pantheon of Hindu gods. In this case, I suppose both films are guilty of fostering a misapprehension.  However, this is Help!, the goofy, written-in-ten-days musical romp that’s a half-century old. Anyone expecting documentary-style accuracy on actual Hindu religious rites should look elsewhere.

And not that any religion is treated with reverence in the Help! universe. “They have to paint me red before they chop me,” Ringo patiently explains at one point. “It’s a different religion from ours. [Long pause]…I think.”

Some also decry the fact that all of the “Indians” are played by lily-white English actors. That, of course, is part of the overall joke, and the English are the butts of it. Despite their Empire being long gone, the English are so childishly pleased with themselves and their way of life that they suspect that everyone, deep down, is really just like them. (As Clang is growling instructions to the henchmen in Hindi, Bhuta looks on helplessly. “I don’t speak the language,” he admits to no one in particular. “Latin, yes, but this Eastern babble…” he concludes with a resigned shrug, like a good British public-school boy.)

In general, the film is just a mild culture clash, with the working-class Scouser/Cockney attitudes toward the “mystic East” tending more toward tolerant befuddlement or innocent cluelessness. If you’re really looking for something to be offended about, I suppose you could find it in Help!, but you’d need to put forth the effort. Keep in mind, Harrison’s and the Beatles’ sincere interest in Indian religion inspired by their work on the film did lead directly to a more educated and informed view in subsequent years.

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At some point in late April or May, the band dug out their heavy Austrian ski outfits to be photographed for the promotional materials, including the movie poster and album cover. Photographer Robert Freeman’s original intention was to have them spell out H-E-L-P with their arms in semaphore. That formation looked awkward and didn’t photograph well, so, in Freeman’s words, “we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning of the arms.” They roughly spell out “NUJV” or “NVUJ”, depending on which version of the picture you’re looking at.

I had naturally assumed the “semaphore” photos were shot on location in Austria, but soon remembered that was almost a month before the title had been conceived. (Add to that fact that no version of the semaphore photos with an actual Austrian background can be found — they’re always superimposed onto other things: record sleeves, posters, books, etc., which indicates a later studio shoot against a blank backing. There is a brief arms-extended shot in the “Ticket To Ride” sequence that may have sparked the idea.) The official still photographer on the set of Help! was not Freeman, but Emilio Lari.

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Smoke break on Salisbury Plain. I would love to own McCartney’s outfit, but doubt I could pull it off.

The first three days of May were spent creating a visually striking sequence on the windswept Salisbury Plain with a noticably freezing, shivering band playing “I Need You” and “The Night Before.” (In the film, this was an presented as an unorthodox outdoor recording session, so that the Beatles — a national treasure — could be protected from all the nefarious forces out to do them harm by a ring of armored tanks while cutting their latest record.)

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The last few days of the shoot were spent at Cliveden House, a 19th century mansion in the Berkshire countryside, whose large, paneled rooms were a believable stand-in for the interiors of Buckingham Palace.

At Cliveden House

At Cliveden House

Practically as soon as “cut” was called on their last scene on May 11, the Beatles hit the recording studio again (in fact, they had begun the night before.) This time they turned their attention to the second half of the Help! album, the material that would not be in the film. Through May and June, the Beatles bounced between the Twickenham recording studio, doing post-sync sound work on the final cut of Help!, and their regular recording studio on Abbey Road, laying down “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Bad Boy,” “I’m Down,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “It’s Only Love,” “Act Naturally,” and “Yesterday.” The Vox Continental organ replaced the Hohner Pianet as the keyboard flavor-of-the-week during these sessions. (The Hammond organ, mellotron, and Moog were all waiting in the wings…)

They also recorded the appropriately-titled “Wait,” which would end up on Rubber Soul later in ‘65. “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means A Lot” were shit-canned, until both were resurrected for the outtake-based Anthology project in the 1990s.

help british singleOn June 20, they steeled themselves for another round of touring the world, playing the usual 30-minute inaudible shows into a maelstrom of hysterical screams. On July 23, the “Help!” single was released (backed by “I’m Down”) to whet the public’s appetite for the upcoming film and album.

Help! received a Royal Premiere at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on July 29, 1965, the same day it hit cinemas throughout Britain. The band was on a break between the European and American legs of their tour, and were able to put on their tuxes and attend. It was a box-office hit, although critics, as we’ve seen, were noticeably more lukewarm compared to the raves they gave A Hard Day’s Night.

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

The British and American soundtrack albums were two very different entities, following the pattern established by the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack. In the UK, both  A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were released as proper Beatles albums, with two full sides of original music. The first side featured songs from the film, and the second side featured additional “album-only” songs. The only deviation from standard Beatles recording policy on the British soundtracks was the inclusion of singles, which ordinarily would not be included on a UK album. United Artists dictated, however, that the title song of the movie be released as a single around the same time as the movie/album release, and that the movie/album include an already-released proven hit single of recent vintage (“Can’t Buy Me Love” in the case of A Hard Day’s Night, “Ticket To Ride” for Help!).

On the American versions, only the seven songs heard in each film were included on the A Hard Day’s Night and Help! records, spread over both sides and interspersed with sections of the orchestral scores by George Martin and Ken Thorne, respectively. Kind of a rip-off, really, to be paying full album price for what was essentially a half-album of Beatles songs. In fact, the American Help! was packaged as a “deluxe” album with a gatefold sleeve, and priced $1 higher than a standard album when it hit shelves on August 13, 1965.

George Martin was not invited back to provide the score for Help!. (He says he and Lester “did not hit it off” on A Hard Day’s Night, but has never elaborated.) Lester’s choice of composer Ken Thorne to score the film is not without interest, however unwelcome his presence on a supposed Beatles album might be. His score for Help! consists mostly of orchestral and Indian re-workings of the Beatles songs “A Hard Day’s Night,” “From Me To You,” and “You Can’t Do That,” along with a few snippets of classical pieces, and, naturally, the “James Bond Theme.” Continue reading

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Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 2)

Help! had no shortage of good actors, although the Beatles (and most everyone else) would not count themselves among them…

Leo McKern as Clang

Leo McKern as Clang

High Priest Clang was played by Leo McKern, a character actor with a distinctive round face and bulbous nose who already had a long theatrical and film career going back to the 1940s (including an appearance in Lester’s Running Jumping & Standing Still Film). Help! launched him to a higher level, and he went on to give notable performances in A Man For All Seasons, Ryan’s Daughter, and The Blue Lagoon. He is probably most remembered by British viewers (and the American PBS audience) as the barrister Horace Rumpole in the BBC TV series Rumpole Of The Bailey, which ran off and on from 1975 through 1992.

Eleanor Bron as Ahme

Eleanor Bron as Ahme

High Priestess Ahme was played by Eleanor Bron in her film debut. The young actress with a strikingly unconventional look was already well-known for being the first female performer in a Cambridge University Footlights revue (the previously all-male theatrical club was also the launching pad for David Frost, Peter Cook, future Pythons John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle, and later, Douglas Adams, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and on and on…) She made a name for herself in the emerging world of modern British satire. With fellow Footlight John Fortune, she created a male/female comedy duo act for Peter Cook’s Establishment nightclub (similar to the sort of thing Mike Nichols and Elaine May were doing in the US around the same time). She also was a performer on David Frost’s Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life (1964-65). After Help!, she continued performing in film, television, stage, and radio, and authored several books.

A lot of sources say her name inspired the title of the 1966 Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” but this may not be so. real Eleanor Rigby has a grave in the St. Peter’s Parish Church cemetery in Liverpool, which the teenage McCartney often used as a shortcut on his ramblings around town.

John Bluthal as Bhuta

John Bluthal as Bhuta

Bhuta, Clang’s long-suffering sidekick, was played by John Bluthal, who had worked with Richard Lester for many years (he was the car thief in A Hard Day’s Night), and would go on to do so for many years more. Modern audiences might recognize him as the blind street musician who owns the chimpanzee (“min-key”) in Return of the Pink Panther, or Professor Pacoli in the opening sequence of The Fifth Element.

Roy Kinnear as Algernon

Roy Kinnear as Algernon

Dr. Foot’s assistant, Algernon, was played by Roy Kinnear. (“He’s an idiot,” says Foot of Algernon. “A degree in woodworking. I ask you.”) Like Bluthal, the rotund Kinnear was a member of Lester’s “stock company,” appearing in most of his films. And like Bron, he was a veteran of Britain’s satire boom of the early Sixties, appearing in David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was in 1962-63. (Frost seemingly came up with a different satirical comedy show for every TV season.) Kinnear’s performance is quite possibly the comedic highlight of Help!. The Behm/Wood screenplay has no shortage of lines that aren’t particularly funny to read, but become funny in performance. Kinnear is a genius in this area. Some examples:

“I’m better with animals than plugs and transistors, Daddy being the local master of the hounds. That’s where I get it from, my love of animals. They trust me. [Long pause, then wistfully] I should have been in vivisection.”

“[To Ringo] You’re a drummer, eh? I’m no mean hand at the ol’ sticks-man stuff myself, you know,” [Then randomly slaps the back of an office chair for several seconds with his hands.]

Victor Spinetti as Dr. Foot

Victor Spinetti as Dr. Foot

Everyone loves, or should love, Roy Kinnear. Most people know him as Veruca Salt’s father in 1971’s Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. He never did much work in the US, but his British filmography is pretty impressive.

The mad scientist, Dr. Foot, was played by Victor Spinetti. Spinetti, described by Wikipedia as a “raconteur,” was a Welsh-born actor who did most of his work writing, directing, and acting on the theater stage (while still managing to appear in over 30 films). He appeared in a major role in A Hard Day’s Night (as the neurotic TV Director), and the Beatles loved him so much they insisted he be in their second film. After Help!, he continued his association with the band, appearing on their fan-club Christmas recordings, adapting Lennon’s book of nonsense stories and verse, In His Own Write, into a stage play, and making an appearance in Magical Mystery Tour. Paul McCartney described him as “the man who makes clouds disappear,” and George Harrison told him “you’ve got to be in all our films…if you’re not in them, my mum won’t come and see them — because she fancies you.” (Mrs. Harrison was shit out of luck — like Graham Chapman, Spinetti was openly and flamboyantly gay in an era when it could still be career suicide to do so.) john-lennon-victor-spinetti_01

Patrick Cargill as Superintendent Gluck

Patrick Cargill as Superintendent Gluck

Another flamboyant British theatrical eccentric, Patrick Cargill, played Superintendent Gluck of Scotland Yard. Cargill was a fixture of British stage and television for decades, although his two popular TV shows, Father, Dear Father and The Many Wives of Patrick didn’t get much play Stateside. One of Cargill’s great moments in the film, in addition to his obsession with the word “famous,” is his insistence that he is a great mimic (“James Cagney” he proudly cites among his repertoire), followed by his attempt to do an Liverpudlian impression of Ringo over the phone. “Hullo, this is the famous Ringo speaking, gear-fab, what can I do for you as it were, gear-fab?” (“Not a bit like Cagney,” George remarks acidly.)

The Beatles began the Help! project in John Lennon’s home music room, he and Paul crafting to order the songs that would be heard in the film. They had been playing a winter residency at the historic Hammersmith Odeon theater in London from December 1964 through January 1965. In the chilly afternoons before the performances, Paul would drive out to Lennon’s country home in Weybridge and hammer out the soundtrack for the movie they knew they would be filming in a month or so. (Cynthia Lennon related in her memoir that if deadlines were particularly tight, Lennon and McCartney would collaborate over the phone.)

“We made a game of it. John and I wrote [each of] the songs within two or three hours — our ‘time allotted.’ It hardly ever took much longer than that.” (Paul McCartney.) If a song didn’t at least start to come together in the time allotted, they figured it wasn’t worth the effort and moved on.

Armed with several Lennon-McCartney compositions written expressly for the film, and two George Harrison songs to boot, the band arrived at EMI Studios on Abbey Road on February 15, 1965. They recorded the basic tracks for “Ticket To Ride,” “Another Girl,” and “I Need You.” Those three songs were completed the following day, along with a song that was not destined to end up the the film, “Yes It Is.”

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McCartney plays the Pianet on “Tell Me What You See”

On February 17, “The Night Before” was recorded, along with another non-film song “You Like Me Too Much,” both heavily featuring the Hohner Pianet electric piano, which they saw one of their opening acts use at the Odeon shows. (Like a lot of the band’s new musical “toys,” the Pianet was briefly obsessed over, then virtually abandoned. Harrison’s just-purchased volume-control guitar pedal, all over the previous day’s “I Need You” and “Yes It Is,” met a similar fate after the Help! sessions.)

February 18 was an epic recording day, with “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” completed, along with the non-film song “Tell Me What You See” and an unreleased Lennon-McCartney song with Ringo on lead vocals, “If You’ve Got Trouble” (which was so awful, the Beatles gave up on it almost immediately, managing only a single take — though they did do a few overdubs and give it a rough mix, just in case.)

February 19 saw the recording of “You’re Going To Lose That Girl.” The final tweaking, overdubbing, and mixing of the soundtrack songs occurred on February 20, along with an attempt at another song destined for the reject pile, “That Means A Lot.”  Continue reading

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Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 1)

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The original film poster

Help! was a movie, too, you know…

Nowadays, Help! mostly conjures up thoughts of the 1965 album, its driving, brilliant title single, and its Side Two (in the UK) monster classic “Yesterday.”

But Help! was a cinematic entity as well, and the accompanying album was (mostly) intended to be its soundtrack tie-in. Help! (the movie) has always gotten short shrift from Beatles historians, film critics, and even the Beatles themselves. Oh, no one says it’s bad — everyone acknowledges it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch — but in most Beatles books it’s dismissively given about a page-and-a-half to two pages out of the band’s whole history. This for a project that the band spent almost four months producing, and four months in those hectic Beatlemania days might as well have been four years. (Even their self-made, self-indulgent psychedelic mess of a TV movie, 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, gets more notice and affection these days.)

There was a time when popular singers, once they’d reached a certain point of  fame, were expected to take the next step and become all-around “entertainers,” conquering other mediums, especially film and television. Guys like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley ended up with just as many films as albums, if not more. Following that mindset, Beatles manager Brian Epstein signed the band up for a three-picture deal with United Artists in late 1963. Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night (released July 1964) was microscopically budgeted and hastily shot with the belief that the Beatles were a temporary craze with an imminent expiration date. (UA could cancel the remaining two pictures if they chose.) It was intended to be a cheapie exploitation flick, but it ended up a landmark moment in film history.o-THE-BEATLES-facebook

Help!, their second film under the UA contract, was released to British cinemas in July 1965 (a month later in the US). The British and American versions of the soundtrack (two very different animals, as we’ll see) were released a week apart in early August.

“There’s nothing in Help! to compare with…A Hard Day’s Night…This one, without sense or pattern is wham, wham, wham all the way…Some of it is surprising. Richard Lester, the director, has played some witty pranks with his camera. There are some fetching title and color gags, and a lot of amusing tricks achieved with old silent film techniques…The boys themselves are exuberant and uninhibited in their own genial way. They just become awfully redundant and—dare I say it?—dull.” (Original New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, 1965.)

“Unlike their first film, Help! came out uneven, unbalanced. The songs were great (the Beatles never let us down when it came to music) and there were a few genuinely funny moments. But there were some very flat gags and worse, a long dull period in the middle of the film. Reviews were decidedly mixed, with almost every reviewer dubbing Help! a comedown from their glittering debut.” (Actor & blogger Eddie Deezen, via the Neatorama website.) Help!

“The script…isn’t a complete failure, especially for fans of British comedies of the 1960s. There’s some really great funny business between the group…But overall, the story can’t hold a candle to the behind-the-scenes look from A Hard Day’s Night. The issue with Help! is its complete rejection of any realistic element – the moment you see the Beatles living in one large house, you know this is a cartoon world with no sense of reality…Help! turns the zaniness to 11 and it’s just too much to make for a good movie….It makes it pretty clear that while the Beatles were geniuses at music, acting was not their forte. The songs written for Help! are some of the group’s best…but the dated stuff in between make it hard to watch on a regular basis…” (Daniel S. Levine, film critic for The Celebrity Cafe, and evidently a hater of everything non-realistic.)

“I enjoyed filming it. I’m sort of satisfied, but not smug about it. It’ll do. There’s good photography in it. There’s some good actors in it — not us, because we don’t act, we just do what we can.” (John Lennon, damning it with faint praise around the time of its release).

“Looking back on it, Help! isn’t such a bad film. It’s more of a fun romp, but I think that A Hard Day’s Night is the better of the two…we’d really tried to get involved and learn the script for A Hard Day’s Night, [but] by the time Help! came along we were taking it as a bit of a joke. I’m not sure anyone ever knew the script, I think we used to learn it on the way to the set.” (Paul McCartney.) 3834949

Yes, Help! will always suffer in comparison to A Hard Day’s Night, a film-buff favorite. That first film was cinema-verite style look at a fictionalized “two days in the life of” the world’s greatest pop group. Its gritty, black & white cinematography, documentary-style handheld camera work, jittery editing, and energetic performances from the Beatles still in their first flush of mega-stardom make A Hard Day’s Night a bona fide cinema classic. (The music is pretty good, too.)

The lion’s share of credit goes to director Richard Lester, but accolades are also deserved by screenwriter Alun Owen, like the Beatles a native of Liverpool, who traveled with the band on their November 1963 mini-tour of Ireland, and incorporated their personalities and witticisms into his Oscar-nominated script. Also contributing to its success were Beatles’ recording producer George Martin, who composed the orchestral score, and film producer Walter Shenson of United Artists, who stayed hands-off and allowed Lester, Owen, Martin, and the Beatles to create something that wasn’t just “another shitty pop movie” (Lennon’s words) like the kind Presley was cranking out in bulk at the time. Mere days after the Beatles stood on Ed Sullivan’s stage making their iconic US TV debut, they were in front of Lester’s cameras to get the film in the can before their next round of touring…

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SIDE NOTE: The Beatles’ schedule in their first three years or so of worldwide fame was almost inhumanly grueling, as a glance at Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicles will tell you. Consider this: the last day of filming on A Hard Day’s Night was April 24. On the 25th, they were in rehearsals for their ITV TV special Around The Beatles. On the 26th, they played at the New Musical Express Poll-Winners concert. The 27 and 28th was more rehearsing and then taping Around The Beatles. The 29th and 30th were concerts up in Scotland. May 1st saw them back in London recording an appearance for the BBC. And so on…

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #13: “Smokey And The Bandit”

I’ve already written a few pieces on life in my college apartment awhile back, and every once in awhile, something comes along that takes me right back to those days. The other night, I came across a certain flick while channel-flipping…

Every college apartment has those one or two movies that are almost nightly viewing…the Big Lebowskis, the Monty Python & The Holy Grails…where the dialogue, gestures, even facial expressions become a treasure trove of inside jokes and the secret language of roommates. For me and my college roommates, it was 1977’s Smokey And The Bandit. We had a VHS copy with warbly sound and a discolored rainbow effect down one side of the screen, but it did its duty, night after night. Individual lines of dialogue that made no sense outside of the immediate context of the film came out of our mouths to the exclusion of actual conversation:

“Lemme have a Diablo sammich and a Dr. Pepper and make it fast I’m in a goddamn hurry!”

“Hold up on that car wash, gentlemen.”

“What we gonna do, kidnap the pope or somethin’?” (Proper response: “How’d ya guess?”)

“If they’d-a cremated that sumbitch, I’d be kicking that Mr. Bandit’s ass around the moon by now…”

“What-I-owe?” (while pointing at someone with both the index finger and pinkie extended.)

“I’m gonna barbecue yo’ ass in MOLASSES!!”

“Honey hush.”

“Thank you, nice lady.”

Each of those lines, and many, many others, meant something to us in Apartment-speak. (Respectively, “I’m hungry,” “stop what you’re doing,” “what’s your plan/idea?” “this traffic jam sucks,” “how much do I owe you?” “I’m very upset with you,” “oh my goodness,” and, uh, “thank you, nice lady.”) Again, there were many others. I almost considered compiling a glossary for this piece.

The film’s story is a simple premise — for reasons that don’t seem to extendSmokeyBanditposter beyond their own twisted amusement and taste for sub-par beer, millionaire Texans Big Enos Burdette and his adult-but-diminutive son Little Enos Burdette travel through the South offering truck drivers (“gearjammers”) exorbitant amounts of cash to haul Coors beer outside of its legal distribution zone. In the 1970s, Coors was available only west of the Mississippi, and people who couldn’t get it became obsessed with it, despite the fact it is very, very shitty beer. (I’d like to see a movie where someone has to haul a truckload of White Castle sliders to California.) They make the offer to “truck-driving legend” Bo “Bandit” Darville. (“Looks like a legend and an out-of-work bum look a lot alike, Daddy” Little Enos observes.) According to the terms of the wager, Bandit must travel to Texarkana, Texas, acquire his cargo, and return to Atlanta in 28 hours. He eagerly accepts, enlisting his pal Cledus “Snowman” Snow to actually drive the truck, while he speeds around in a flashy Pontiac Trans-Am as a “blocker,” drawing the attention of any law enforcement in the vicinity away from the truck and its illicit load. Along the way, he picks up Carrie, a runaway bride. Add to this mix a dogged, vengeful Texas sheriff who fanatically tails him far beyond his jurisdiction. Revving engines, squealing tires, high-speed chases, and crashed police cars ensue as the characters exchange witticisms via CB radio.

Veteran stunt coordinator & driver Hal Needham made his directorial debut with this film, and he never bettered it (not even with his 1986 BMX epic Rad). The project was originally meant to be a low-budget B-movie targeted to rural drive-ins, capitalizing on the CB radio fad and truck-driver worship sweeping the country in the mid-1970s. (You can start singing “Convoy” to yourself now. And the term “smokey” was CB slang for a state policeman, due to their Smokey the Bear-style park ranger hats.) It would feature country singer and part-time actor Jerry Reed as the titular Bandit…until Reed’s friend, Gator co-star, and bona fide celebrity Burt Reynolds expressed an interest in starring. Universal Studios thought that was a great idea. The budget was duly inflated, Reed got bumped to the sidekick role, and it was released as a main feature in theaters across the country, to critical indifference and massive popular success. The only film to make more money that year was Star Wars. Continue reading

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Christmas On First Street

I have been told I have a remarkable memory, and I’ll humbly admit that it is true. However…it is slipping.

Lots of entries here at The Holy Bee of Ephesus are autobiographical reminiscences, and I have found recently as I’m writing them that I’m straining to remember dates and details that were once clear as day. My “steel trap” memory (my Mom’s description) is getting rusty.

SCN_0038Like many people, some of my favorite memories are of Christmas, and I find that I remember Christmases of my early childhood better than those of just a few years ago. This may be due to never spending more than a few Christmases in any one house. Mom and Dad were always renters instead of owners, because Mom often grew bored or dissatisfied with houses, and we would frequently pack up and move (sometimes only a few blocks.) I liked it because moving was an adventure, and it gave each Christmas a unique feel and flavor, but even those once-vivid childhood Christmases are starting to fade and go a little sepia-toned…so I figured I’d better get to writing before they are gone from my brain cells for good.

Woodland, California is a mid-sized town about twenty miles northwest of the state capital of Sacramento. My grandparents settled there when they came from Oklahoma back around 1940, and Woodland and its smaller, semi-rural satellite towns (Esparto, Yolo, Winters, etc.) were my extended family’s home base for more than fifty years.

My first four Christmases were spent in four different houses, but in September of 1978, we settled down for awhile. A big, Spanish-style adobe house on the corner of First Street and Craig Avenue in one of the older sections of “historic Woodland” was my home for my fourth, fifth, and sixth birthdays (on December 3), and the first Christmases that I really remember.

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The house on First Street, New Year’s Day, 1980. Note the retired Christmas tree in the gutter.

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The house on First Street as it appears today. The thick shrubbery under the dining room window (left) has been removed, otherwise it is remarkably unchanged.

In ‘78, there was me, 4, a pre-school student at Montessori and attendee at Mrs. Lanier’s in-home daycare, my sister Lori, 12, a seventh-grader at Lee Junior High, Dad, 39, who worked in auto body repair at Winter Motors in Sacramento, and Mom, 30, an elementary school secretary. We were definitely a comfortable level of middle-class, but with a touch of blue-collar in the mix.

Living nearby were my mom’s older sisters — Aunt Jonna and her husband Uncle Hugh were ensconced over on Rancho Way in one of the more upscale areas of Woodland. This was their home for over a quarter century and the site of many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Aunt Thana was single at that time, and if anyone in the family moved house more than us, it was her. Even my remarkable memory cannot keep up with the amount of places she lived during this era. Jonna and Thana had a mix of kids still at home and adult kids already out on their own, but all still in the general Woodland area. Grandma and Grandpa were living a ways up the Capay Valley, in the tiny town of Guinda along Cache Creek…

The earliest memory I have of the days leading up to Christmas ’78 (which may be my first Christmas memory ever) was of making a Christmas card at preschool withGeoffrey Cover poster paint and Christmas-shaped sponges (trees, bells, angels, etc.). I also remember sitting in the rec room at daycare listening to a Christmas-themed record album featuring the Geoffrey Giraffe family from the old Toys R Us ads. (Internet research tells me this was 1975’s A Merry Geoffrey Christmas.) The big Christmas movie release that year was Superman with Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. I saw it at the old State Theater — the first movie I saw in a theater — and it made quite an impression. It wasn’t long before I was toting my mayonnaise sandwiches to Mrs. Lanier’s in a red Superman lunchbox.

1978-SupermanInstead of getting a pre-cut tree, we did a saw-your-own expedition to a tree farm this year. (Or maybe that was ‘79. I curse my four-year-old self for not keeping detailed notes.) The tree farm would have been up in Placerville, near Apple Hill, and the tree we got was a massive, bushy monstrosity, probably Scotch pine, and over nine feet tall in order to properly fit in our arched front window. Unlike some of our other houses, First Street had high ceilings — and an open floor plan with square footage to spare, so Mom totally rearranged all the furniture every few months or so. From week to week, you never knew if you’d be sitting on the couch to watch TV in the living room, the formal dining room (which we used as more of a den), or the linoleumed area off the kitchen.

We decorated the tree with a standard set of glass balls, bows, candy canes, and tinsel garland (which I enjoyed wrapping around myself and swishing about the house, which may have worried my parents in those pre-enlightened days.) There was also a pink shoebox full of plastic Disney character figurine ornaments furred in a thin velour which grew balder and mangier over the years, and a potpourri of oddball tree hangings acquired in various ways through various holidays, including a grotesquely overweight topless “angel” with pendulous breasts, handmade out of glazed clay by someone with a skewed sense of humor. The (clothed) angel tree-topper dated from Lori’s first Christmas in 1966. Continue reading

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66 & 2/3–Use Your Illusion I and II (Part Three)

The floodgates finally opened: Thirty songs spaced over two packed-to-the-gills compact discs. Use Your Illusion I’s cover used the red-and-yellow motif of the original Mark Kostabi painting. Use Your Illusion II changed the color scheme to a cool blue-and-purple. The CD booklets were stuffed with photos, the vitriolic lyrics in microscopic sans-serif type, and detailed production and songwriting credits. Here’s the track list for the albums:

USE YOUR ILLUSION I

  1. Right Next Door To HellGnR--UseYourIllusion1
  2. Dust N’ Bones
  3. Live And Let Die
  4. Don’t Cry
  5. Perfect Crime
  6. You Ain’t The First
  7. Bad Obsession
  8. Back Off Bitch
  9. Double Talkin’ Jive
  10. November Rain
  11. The Garden
  12. Garden Of Eden
  13. Don’t Damn Me
  14. Bad Apples
  15. Dead Horse
  16. Coma

USE YOUR ILLUSION II

  1. Civil WarGunsnRosesUseYourIllusionII
  2. 14 Years
  3. Yesterdays
  4. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
  5. Get In The Ring
  6. Shotgun Blues
  7. Breakdown
  8. Pretty Tied Up
  9. Locomotive
  10. So Fine
  11. Estranged
  12. You Could Be Mine
  13. Don’t Cry (Alt. Lyrics)
  14. My World

GunsnRoses pinballThirty tracks of equal parts seething fury and overwrought sentiment hit the streets in the waning days of summer ‘91…(Five or six songs remained mysterious outtakes. “Ain’t Going Down” was the only original that has ever surfaced…on the official Guns N’ Roses pinball machine, if you please. Evidently some other songs were covers that came out on “The Spaghetti Incident?” in 1993.)

The albums shot immediately to #1 and #2 on the Billboard charts. Use Your Illusion II sold slightly better, which I still find hard to believe even though the evidence was right in front of my eyes on Release Day at the Wherehouse. Customers buying only one of the albums almost inevitably chose II. Perhaps because it contained the massive “You Could Be Mine” single, plus the previously released “Civil War” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (both of which got some radio airplay over the last year), so maybe the material was more of a known quantity. But it was also saddled with the odious “My World,” the embarrassing “Get In The Ring,” the inferior “alternate lyrics” version of “Don’t Cry,” the mawkish Duff McKagan-penned ballad “So Fine”…but I suppose people going to the cash register didn’t know that at the time.

The narrowing down began almost immediately. What are the “necessary” songs from the Use Your Illusions? Like almost everyone I knew, I only had a cassette player in my car. I put the entirety of I and II onto two separate tapes…then I did what everyone who has ever owned these albums did: I made a compilation of what I thought was the best stuff, and it was this third cassette that rarely left my player through the last half of ‘91 and the first half of ‘92.

[Years later, there actually was an “official” single-disc Use Your Illusion, supposedly compiled by Axl himself, consisting of profanity-free songs for the big box stores like Walmart and Kmart. Unfortunately, it’s a great example of how NOT to make a single-disc Illusion, including both versions of “Don’t Cry” at the expense of better (still profanity-free) songs.]

So…the 33⅓ author did it, several blogs have already done it, I remember most of my friends from that era doing it…

They all got it entirely wrong, botching the whole thing. The Holy Bee will now do it right.

Many people’s single-disc mixes included only twelve songs, making it a song-for-song match for Appetite For Destruction. Yes, the Use Your Illusions need to be cut down, but I don’t want them to be a mere shadow of their former selves. Grandiosity is what makes them fascinating. Therefore, I will cut only fourteen songs, leaving me sixteen, clocking in at about 88 minutes. This still stretches the limits of space available on a commercially released compact disc, but my pared-down Use Your Illusion would make an awesome double album on vinyl (which, remember, the individual Use Your Illusions were anyway), and would fit on a standard 90 minute blank tape. Perfect. (A few minutes too long for recording onto a blank CD, but we’re keeping our heads firmly in 1991…)

The Selection Process: I will be discarding fourteen songs, but it’s not enough to simply cut and let the remainder stay where they are. The running order will need to be completely re-shuffled to create a smooth, balanced and natural flow from one song to the next.

I have chunked the songs on Use Your Illusion I and II down into six general categories, and each category has to lose at least two songs (except where noted.)

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66 & 2/3 – Use Your Illusion I and II (Part Two)

Guns_N'_Roses-logoWhen my son Cameron was about six or seven, he began nosing around in my Beatles books, and saw some of the recording credits. “How could Paul play bass, piano, and organ on the same song?” he asked. “He didn’t have six hands.” Most people with a passing interest in record-making are aware of the concept of overdubs, but I’ll throw out a quick description…

In the early days of recording, the idea was to capture a performance as it happened. The band set up, the recording engineer plopped down a microphone, and they played. If there was a screw-up, they took it from the top. If a singer or instrumentalist needed to be louder, they moved closer to the microphone.

Beginning in the 1960s, thanks primarily to The Beatles’ studio innovations, the whole philosophy behind recording changed. It was no longer about capturing a performance as it happened, but building the perfect version of a song. Bits and pieces of numerous takes were edited together, and additional vocals and instruments were added via multi-track tape recorders. The typical method for a post-mid 60s rock band would be to record a “basic track” or “rhythm track” (drums, bass, a couple of guitars) onto one or two “tracks” (individual recording spaces) of the tape machine. Then additional tracks (guitar solos, percussion, keyboards, miscellaneous texturing, lead and backing vocals) would be “overdubbed” on top of the basic track. On a single-track recorder, like your old VCR or portable cassette player, the new recording would simply erase the old. But on a multi-track recording, everything remains audible. Picture an overhead projector from your early school days — each track would be the sonic version one of those transparent sheets you could lay down on the projector surface, combining to create the full image projected on the screen.

The tracks would then be mixed, ensuring the proper balance of sounds. The Beatles worked their magic with only four-track recorders. If they needed more room, they mixed the in-progress song back down to one or two tracks (“bouncing” it, as they put it), and made the necessary additions on the newly-opened tracks. The process could be repeated, but the loss of fidelity would become noticeable.

Vintage 2-track, 4-track, and 16-track tape recorders

Vintage 2-track, 4-track, and 16-track tape recorders

By the Use Your Illusion era, 48-track digital (no tape) recorders were the order of the day. With reduction (“bounce”) mixes resulting in no loss of audio quality, overdubs could be almost infinite, and even a single note or word could simply be “punched in.” 

As evidenced above, the term “track” itself has a multitude of uses — it can refer to an available space on a recording, a single instrumental or vocal overdub, a basic foundation recording…or even a finished song as it appears on an album, just to add to the confusion.

Continuing our look at the development of the Use Your Illusion material…

Summer 1989 — Eight weeks of writing, work-shopping and rehearsal for the new album were scheduled in Chicago, a seemingly random location chosen by Axl and Izzy. Then neither of them showed up for most of that time. The trio of Slash, McKagan, and Adler attempted to work out ideas in the absence of their two chief writers and arrangers, but Slash called that whole period a “waste of time” that yielded a few finished tunes and a “handful of rudimentary ideas” that they had brought with them from L.A. in the first place. According to the hazy recollections of their autobiographies, Slash and Duff figure the songs that came together in Chicago included “Bad Apples,” “Garden Of Eden,” “Get In The Ring,” the final version of “Civil War,”  “Pretty Tied Up” (originally an Izzy song that they finished off in his absence), and “Estranged” (when Axl finally deigned to show up).

dizzyReed

Dizzy Reed

February 1990 — Against the wishes the other band members, Axl insisted on hiring a keyboard player to fatten out the sound and assist with the epic synth orchestras he was hearing in his head for his ballads. Dizzy Reed, formerly of L.A. bar band The Wild, became the sixth member of GN’R. (Also, like a wise old uncle, Mick Jagger advised Axl that using keyboards onstage helped keep your vocals on pitch.)

By the rules of rock & roll, adding a keyboard player where there wasn’t one to begin with is the first slip on the greasy slope of musical bloat. What’s next? Backup singers? A horn section? Elaborate stage effects?

Spring 1990 — After the disastrous Chicago “pre-production” sessions, according to Slash, most of the final arrangements of the Illusion tracks were worked out “in literally two nights” on acoustic guitars when all band members finally got together in one room for the first time in months. Songs that had been kicking around the band forever (see previous entry) were given a fresh going-over, old fragments were pieced together and fleshed out, becoming new songs, and Axl finally began his rough draft of the lyrics. At the end of this phase, they had thirty-six demos.

All they needed to do now was get themselves organized enough to take this material into the recording studio. Easier said than done: Slash was still a heroin addict. Duff was a raging alcoholic, guzzling by his conservative estimate a gallon of Stoli vodka per day. Steven Adler was both a heroin addict and an alcoholic, and had more than a passing interest in crack cocaine as well. Izzy, after a decade of living like these guys, had gone clean and sober and was keeping contact with his bandmates to a bare minimum. (At this point, he would often mail in cassettes of riff ideas and demos to the band office rather than show up to sessions.) Axl was Axl, and operated on no schedule other than his own whims.

They did manage to start recording in good faith with Appetite producer Mike Clink, making several passes at “Civil War,” before it became clear that drummer Steven Adler could no longer play. Recording sessions were put on indefinite hold until the situation could sorted out.

Matt Sorum

Matt Sorum

June 1990 — GN’R fired Steven Adler for drug-induced incompetence. He was replaced by veteran drummer Matt Sorum, a hard-hitter who kept solid time with no frills or complications. Sourm had played for more bands than anyone could count since the mid-70s, but was most recently the touring drummer for The Cult. The lawsuits and counter-lawsuits between Adler and the rest of the band kept dozens of lawyers employed through the 1990s.

Slash said the first song recorded with Sorum was the Bob Dylan song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” but Slash’s autobiography is (understandably) fuzzy on firm dates — it must have been recorded in a damned jiffy compared to everything else, because it came out on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise/NASCAR turkey Days of Thunder on June 26. (“Knockin’” had been played in concert since 1987, so they knew it pretty well at this point.)

July 1990 — “Civil War” was released to little fanfare as part of the charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal, in support of Romanian orphans. It was the final appearance on a Guns N’ Roses song by Steven Adler. (According to one of the band’s counter-lawsuits, the drum track was pieced together by Mike Clink from over sixty different takes because Adler’s playing had deteriorated so much.)

September 1990 — The backing tracks are laid down at A&M Studios, Los Angeles. “Thirty-six [basic] tracks in thirty-six days” as Slash described it, bashed out by the core band with Clink behind the soundboard. These early sessions are pretty much the end of Izzy Stradlin’s recording career with Guns N’ Roses. Slash figured Izzy was there “one day out of three,” and it seems much of his rhythm guitar work was simply lifted from his mailed-in, four-track demo tapes. A close perusal of the songwriting credits on the finished albums shows that, despite being “Mr. Invisible” (as the rest of the band called him), Stradlin had a prominent role in creating the foundation of the Illusions’ strongest songs. “I have a few [songs] on there…” he told a journalist at the time, then almost dismissively followed it up by adding, “…but they all get mixed together. Once they’re on tape with Axl singing and Slash playing guitar, I just look at it as Guns N’ Roses stuff.”

The vocal-less tracks were given preliminary mixes by legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain (Stones, Bowie, Springsteen, many, many others), which were rejected as “too slick.” Another attempt was made by legendary engineer #2 Bill Price (Sex Pistols), and these proved rawer and more primitive — satisfactory. The project was already “over-budget, over-time, over everything,” in Price’s words.

His mixes provided the foundation for the copious, almost suffocating, overdubs that are the hallmark of the Use Your Illusions. Continue reading

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