“The All-New Holy Bee/Pointless Nostalgia Adventure Hour”: My Typical Saturday Morning in the Early 80s (Part 2)

As The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show rolled on through the morning, the focus of the program switched to the Road Runner for the second half or final third, introduced by its own memorable theme — “Road Runner, the Coyote’s after you/Road Runner, if he catches you, you’re through…” Unfortunately, the quality of the Road Runner’s portion of the show was somewhat compromised…

wile e coyotes

You see, Warner Brothers continued to release theatrical shorts longer than the other studios, but they farmed out the actual work to smaller companies. DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (co-owned by former WB director Friz Freleng) made the shorts from 1964 to 1967, resulting in a much-altered animation style (not quite “limited,” but close). The WB/DFE partnership did some Road Runner films, but focused mostly on a series of Daffy Duck vs. Speedy Gonzalez shorts (the less said about which the better). Format Films handled the final batch of Road Runner shorts, which were even worse than the Daffy/Speedy stuff. These late-period embarrassments turned up again and again on The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, but can’t hold a candle to the ones originally produced from ‘49 to ‘63, which also turned up on BB/RR. Even a six-year-old could tell the difference.

Sometimes during one of the Format Road Runner shorts (there were eleven of them, and at least two were shown every damn week), I would turn the dial back to ABC, and frequently encounter The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, another entry in the trend of turning a prime-time family show into a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon. Before my time, there had already been Saturday morning versions of Star Trek, The Addams Family, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Emergency!, Lassie, My Favorite Martian, and possibly I Dream of Jeannie (the adaptation was pretty loose.)


The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang bridged that era with the 80s, which brought us animated versions of The Dukes of Hazzard, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Punky Brewster, ALF, and more Gilligan.

The premise for a lot of these shows was the same: take a few of the original TV cast, dump them into a crazy new setting, and add a few new “cartoon-only” characters, preferably some kind of cute mascot or talking animal. To wit: Fonz, Richie Cunningham, and Ralph Malph are caught in a malfunctioning time machine and bounce through history accompanied by a comic-relief dog named Mr. Cool and a “future girl” named Cupcake. (Second example: Laverne and Shirley are in the army and their drill sergeant is a pig named Squealer.)

Almost without exception, these spin-off cartoons managed to get most of the original cast to do the voices. I imagine Donny Most probably wasn’t too difficult to convince, but Ron Howard had already directed two TV movies, one feature film and was planning his second (Night Shift), and had left the actual prime-time version of Happy Days. Still, the work couldn’t have been too demanding. Howard could probably knock back a Scotch and polish off his lines for all 24 episodes in an afternoon, with one eye on the clock so he could get to the bank before it closed.

(Those 24 episodes were padded out for almost two years — first in the usual re-runs, then re-packaged with other shows, in true Saturday Morning style, as the rather desperate-sounding Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour.)

222_65_ucpAt some point during The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, it would be time for breakfast. With a laborious lugging about of the kitchen stool, I assembled the disparate parts that would come together to form my perfect meal — a bowl of cereal. I took my cereal very seriously. Every other Saturday or Sunday afternoon, Mom would do the grocery shopping, and I would accompany her to make sure the cereal acquisition was handled by me personally. Mom had grocery shopping down to a science: her trip through the aisles took exactly sixty minutes. I had that amount of time to pick out my cereals for the next two weeks. I had to get one “healthy” cerealbox291 (Grape Nuts, Cheerios, Chex, etc.) to offset the effects of the two others I was allowed, which were always tooth-achingly sugared. I liked the healthy ones just as well, because I would simply add my own sugar to taste, usually to the point it would leave a viscous sludge on the bottom of the bowl. Mom would often threaten that I would “get worms” if I continued to eat that much raw sugar, the horrific threat of which might be effective on less-savvy six-year-olds, but I waved it off like the old wives’ tale it was. (To this day, I am worm-free.)

So I stood in the cereal aisle in the dead center of Woodland’s Nugget Market (the original!) for an hour, making my decisions. When Mom passed down that aisle, I knew I was at half-time. Would I go home with a product from Post, Kellogg’s, or General Mills? Would it be Pops? Loops? Pebbles? Jacks? I avoided the Smacks — the puffed wheat cereal looked like a bowl of dead locusts, and I didn’t care how cool Dig ‘Em the Frog dressed, I didn’t want a slimy amphibian on my cereal box. Something from the Crunch family, perhaps? The good Cap’n’s original version would tear the roof of your mouth vanilla-cookie-crisp-boxto hell, and leave a strange film, but Peanut Butter Crunch was smooth as silk. (I’ve often wondered if Cap’n Crunch’s eyebrows were floating above his eyes, or simply painted on his hat.) And speaking of unpleasant mouth feel, Grape Nuts was tantamount to eating a bowl of garden-path gravel, but it had a peculiar charm and its slightly-smaller box often graced our shelf. If I was feeling particularly jaunty, I would select Cookie Crisp, which many hand-wringing nutritionists felt was truly the end of civilization. I preferred the long-discontinued Vanilla Wafer Cookie Crisp (in the blue box).

Around this time, at least one of the choices was almost automatic — Waffelos,waffelos my hands-down favorite cereal. They tasted exactly like waffles with maple syrup. They came in regular or blueberry, had a mustachioed cowboy mascot on the box, and best of all, my sister didn’t like them, so the whole box was mine! (If you go to the Mr. Breakfast website comment page — and who wouldn’t? — and read the comments for Waffelos, one of the first remarks you’ll see is “This stuff was like crack!”) The Waffelos cowboy rode off into the sunset before the 80s were half-over, and we’ll never see his like again. (Post introduced some bullshit called “Waffle Crisp” in 1996, but it is a pale imitation.)

Brimming bowl of cereal in (two) hand(s), I carefully baby-stepped my way back from the kitchen to the TV tray I had hopefully remembered to set up ahead of time… Continue reading

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Who Needs Friends When You Have “Super Friends”?: My Typical Saturday Morning in the Early 80s (Part 1)

It is about 7:45 on a Saturday morning, sometime late in 1980, or perhaps early in 1981…

We have gained a new president, lost a Beatle, and the whole country has just learned who shot J.R…

None of this matters to me, of course. I am six. The sun peeks in through the cracks in my Empire Strikes Back curtains. I am tucked under my Empire Strikes Back comforter. I hear the furnace kick on in the basement. I hear the back door in the kitchen open and close as my dad leaves for work. He runs an auto body shop, and his sole employee is himself, so six-day work weeks are a necessity. Mom works the graveyard shift as a police dispatcher, and arrives home not long before I wake up. She will remain sleeping until noon or so. My sister will also remain sleeping until noon or so, by virtue of the fact she is a fourteen-year-old girl.

The house is mine, and it is the best time of the week — it is Saturday Morning.

As warmth fills the house via the heating grates, I slip out of bed. I am clad solely in my briefs. I’ve always hated the sweaty, tangled mess of pajamas, twisting around my torso and riding up my shins. I usually only wear them on Christmas Eve, so I can appear decent in Christmas morning photos. There’s still enough chill in the air to raise goosebumps, so I make sure I wrap my security blanket tight around me, like a chrysalis or vampire’s cape. This blanket has been with me since the crib, and has seen better days. It is basic, thermal-style cloth (like long underwear) and was once vivid yellow, but has faded to hue best described as “old buttermilk.” The satin edging it was manufactured with is not even a memory at this point. I already feel a little too old for such nonsense, but I confess it stays within reach for at least another few years.

underoosIf I’m lucky, one of my three pairs of Underoos briefs would be among the laundered options in my top drawer. Not only did they come in bold superhero colors, they were much softer than my standard tighty-whiteys, mellowing their cotton with a little polyester. I barely considered Underoos underwear — they were a costume, and, on a warm day, perfectly acceptable as outerwear, at least as far as the yard.


Tom Kitty

Scantily-clad and wrapped in my shawl, I creep downstairs. There is one possible obstacle on the landing between the two sets of stairs. Ninety percent of the time, our housecat Tom Kitty is an amenable, purring charmer, on the hunt for a lap to knead and a hand to lick. But every once in awhile, he would get in a “mood.” Sprawled on his side, tail twitching, pupils dilated to the max, he would park himself in some family pathway and challenge everyone to dare try and pass fifteen pounds of feline moodiness. Everyone else stepped over him with little consequence. I was his favorite victim. He would literally nod at me, raising his furry chin in a menacing “‘sup, bro?” gesture. I could either sprint past him and hope to outrun him (he would give chase), or try to cause a diversion, frequently by sacrificing my blanket — tossing it over his head would buy me a few seconds. The downside was that I would sooner or later have to retrieve the blanket, and also the fact that Tom had a long memory for slights. “Payback’s A Bitch” might as well have been embroidered on his collar.

SCN_0016 (2)

The old Zenith…

Happily, most of the time he either wasn’t on the landing, or was in an agreeable temper, so my journey to the couch and TV was unimpeded. The TV was a Zenith cabinet model, half home entertainment, half furniture, with its controls hidden on the right-hand side by a little louvered door, and fake drawers under the screen.  I pull the on-off knob. If I’m a little too early, it’s still showing “Farm Report,” but usually I’m right on time. I feather my couch nest with yet another blanket — a much bigger blue tartan number with fringed edges that lives under our end table. There is no remote. Channel changing must be done on the dial. (Just like my descent from the bedroom, this process can also be complicated by the presence of a moody feline.) If it’s warm enough, I might not bundle myself on the couch, but rather drape myself over a barrel-like hassock footstool that I’ve turned on its side, and rock back and forth like a patient in an experimental chiropractic treatment.

What draws me out of bed so early on a non-school day? The same lure that is reeling in millions of children across the country at this precise moment – Saturday-morning cartoons.


Long ago, cartoons were denizens of the cinema screen, and the major studios had massive animation departments creating the shorts that would run ahead of the feature films. Each studio had its stable of characters — MGM had Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, and Chilly-Willy, Paramount had Popeye, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, and Little Audrey, and the twin kings of cinematic animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had the most iconic characters of all, of whose names I’m sure I need not remind you.

Television arrived for most households in the early 1950s, and immediately began cutting into the movie studios’ profits as more people got their entertainment at home. One by one, the studios shut down their animation departments as a cost-cutting measure. At the same time, animation was still pretty scarce on early television. Kids’ shows tended to be live-action (eg. Howdy Doody, or The Mickey Mouse Club.) What was a cartoon-loving kid to do?


Luckily, along came two former MGM animators — Joseph Hanna and William Barbera. Out of a job when MGM closed their animation department, they formed their own production house with the revolutionary idea of producing quick, low-cost animation directly for television. After a few false starts, Hanna-Barbera hit it big with The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, and pioneered theHuckhound use of “limited animation.” Limited animation uses less-detailed backgrounds, fewer “in-between” drawings between key frames, recycles many elements, and has a lot more “holds,” where characters don’t move at all. Huckleberry Hound and his ancillary characters and spin-offs (Yogi Bear, etc.) were originally developed as packages for weekday syndication on independent local stations, and usually aired sometime after the evening news and before prime-time. Hanna-Barbera’s rival, Jay Ward Productions, actually scored a network deal with ABC for Rocky & Bullwinkle in 1959. There was even a brief period when a flurry of animated shows were developed for prime-time evening viewing, culminating in six seasons of The Flintstones.

8896283_f260Then around 1960, it dawned on the networks and station owners that Saturday morning was a programming wasteland — the perfect place to air a block of kid-centric shows, and much more importantly, kid-centric advertising. The post-WWII economy reveled in conspicuous consumption, and for the first time, the average joe could afford to buy useless crap for his kids. All manner of snacks, candy, toys, and games were hawked to eager young eyeballs. But mostly cereal. Cereal commercials followed each other like a sugar-coated freight train hour after hour. Saturday Morning basically created the brightly-colored, pre-sweetened substance that us kids knew as “cereal,” a development which would certainly send old John Harvey Kellogg into quite a grave-spin. As we’ll see, the commercials were just as big a part of the Saturday Morning experience as the programs.


And the programs were for the most part cartoons. Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward blazed the trail, and other low-cost animation studios followed suit. DePatie-Freleng and Filmation were both churning out material by 1963. (Think Hanna-Barbera animation was low-rent? Compare it to the dirt-cheap house style of Filmation. I recall an old Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin’s dad lambasted the quality of the cartoons Calvin was watching. “They don’t move! They just stand there and blink!” — he was almost certainly watching a Filmation production.) The major movie studios probably believed their old animated shorts were fated to collect dust in the archives, and were delighted to squeeze a few more bucks out of them by selling them to TV at bargain basement prices. (Except Disney — Disney guarded its vaults like a she-bear, which is why you would see nary a feather on Donald’s ass on Saturday mornings.) The fad for prime-time animation died out (at least until The Simpsons), making those shows ripe for plundering. All in all, tons of animated material, new and old, was now available to fill hours of airtime at a much lower cost than live action. Pixie, Dixie, and Mr. Jinks were never going to demand a salary increase or a contract re-negotiation.


Animation in other time slots of the broadcast week dried up, giving Saturday Morning its special cachet. For much of the 70s, Saturday morning was about the only place you could see a decent amount of cartoons on TV. By the time I reached TV-viewing age, things had loosened up. Thanks to a greater number of independent channels on the dial, and the birth of cable, by 1980 there were after-school cartoons, before-school cartoons, and hell, for an hour or two there were even Sunday-morning cartoons. (There was some Dutch/Canadian monstrosity called Dr. Snuggles, and the Pink Panther always seemed to turn up on Sunday mornings on Channel 31.)

But all of that was bush league compared to the hold Saturday Morning held over the average pre-teen viewer. Something about the melange of old Warner Brothers animation, new “limited animation” works by H-B and Filmation, the bright, loud commercials, and the token attempts to educate between all of it held a special kind of magic. Continue reading


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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 20: Where Did You Shop Last Night?

[NOTE: This post originally appeared in June 2014 — I am moving it here because June 2014 was a month of two posts, and May-July of 2015 were months of no posts. So to maintain the fiction that I post once a month, I am re-shuffling the deck, and hoping that I very soon have a stroke of 10,000-word brilliance that can be divided over June, July, and this August. If you’ve already read this piece, I hope you get as much joy out of re-reading my stuff as I do.]

#151. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” — R.E.M.

R.E.M had long been promising a full-on “electric rock” album, and when Monster finally arrived at the tail end of September 1994, it received decent reviews, but little love from longtime fans, who seemed to prefer the band’s more inward, introspective material.

The material they did in the ‘80s for indie label IRS is what’s cherished by most people really into the band, but I always found it hit-or-miss. The good stuff is really good, but there’s also stuff I found to be on the boring side. So no, I suppose I can’t be counted among the R.E.M. “true believers,” who manage to sit through Fables Of The Reconstruction without being tempted to hit the “skip” button at least once or twice. Despite my carping, however, I do believe that they are among the best American bands of the last three decades.


It should come as no surprise that I thought Monster was the second-best thing they’ve ever done (1992’s moodier, acoustic Automatic For The People is a pretty unimpeachable #1). I loved that they dropped the self-serious tone (for the time being), I loved the loud, fuzzy electric guitars, and I loved that the “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” video (and subsequent Monster tour) featured bassist Mike Mills in a full-on Nashville Nudie suit. Underneath all the guitar wonk, I still think Monster is as solid a collection of songs you could hope to find in ‘94, or any other time. Give it another spin (if you didn’t sell it off years ago…)

#152. “Come Out And Play” — The Offspring

#153. “Self-Esteem” — The Offspring

offspringThere began to emerge a little gap between the stuff that spun on the communal 5-disc changer in the apartment’s living room, and the stuff I tended to reserve for private listening in my bedroom. The Offspring were definitely among the former. I liked some of their stuff, particularly the “Self-Esteem” single (as you might imagine, I was struggling in that area right around then), but this Southern California pop-punk quartet was always permanently stained in my mind due to their association with skate “culture.”

Yuba City was a fairly small town, but even fairly small towns can have problems with gang activity. Fortunately, I didn’t exactly move in circles that brought me into contact with real gangs very much. No, the closest thing to a “gang” that occasionally infiltrated by suburban white-bread/coffee shop milieu were…skateboarders, whom I reviled as over-aggressive, defiantly stupid, and extremely hygiene-challenged. (This was the case with Yuba City skaters, mind you. Down in SoCal or wherever, they might be pillars of the community.) When they weren’t paint-huffing or indulging in minor property damage, they were barging into coffee shops in their clown pants, engulfed in a cloud of body odor, and giving people dirty looks between ostentatious cursing and loud spits on the floor. (I don’t have a problem with cursing, but cursing to get attention is lame.) They were not kicked out because, like everyone, they knew someone who worked there.


Oh yes, and they were generally terrible skaters. Continue reading

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


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.


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.


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.)


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.”

hohner pianet

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)


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…


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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