Wednesday, July 25, 2012

An Open Letter to Tom Cruise: How to Make a Movie Rock

Originally published in my "Aural Fixation" column on PopMatters.com on July 25, 2012. See original post here.

"Help me! My career is slipping away!"

image from kdamos.es


Dear Tom Cruise: We know you are hurting from the failure of Rock of Ages. However, if you learn the lessons from the best rock-themed movies, you can still make a rock film for the ages.
You poor man. When average folks crash and burn they don’t have to endure the blazing spotlight of the international media. As one of the biggest stars on the planet, you, Mr. Mission Impossible, have to deal with scrutiny most of us can’t possibly imagine.

I’m not talking about your recently failed marriage to Katie Holmes. We all saw that coming, right? This is much more serious. You, the man who’s starred in 17 movies grossing more than $100 million (see the box office for all his movies here), may have lost your Midas touch.

With $37 million banked, Rock of Ages won’t be joining that blockbuster club. You can’t shoulder all the blame, though. After all, the typical over-the-top intensity you infuse in rock star Stacee Jaxx has some critics hailing you performance as Oscar-worthy.

Still, with widespread derision heaped upon Rock of Ages, you’re left helplessly watching your personal and professional life tanking. You no longer have the luxury of a two-income household. You’re faced with being a single dad, scrounging enough cash to cover child support and alimony payments. Like Jerry Maguire, you need, a break—and soon—to get you out of this slump. You need to make another rock movie.

It might seem like risky business, but Mr. Top Gun, you can tap your own blockbuster-making talents, mix in the elements of critically successful music movies, and gift the world with a true rock film for the ages. Here’s how.


Tip #1: Start with a director who knows rock ‘n’ roll.

“Rock ‘n’ roll” is a specific genre, not an interchangeable term with “pop music”. My kids watched Camp Rock this week, after which I posted on Facebook that Disney owed them an apology for suggesting that the Jonas Brothers and rock have anything to do with each other.

Kudos to director Adam Shankman for adapting Broadway’s Hairspray to the big screen (itself a reworking of John Waters’ 1988 comedy film of the same name). However, when ‘80s hair-band and arena-rock anthems are put in the mouths of Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, they are scrubbed free of whatever grit they first possessed, and the audience feels like its watching an episode of Glee (which Shankman also directed, by the way). Movie critic Richard Roeper said, “Every time an actor belts out a hit, you’re reminded that the original, however, cheesy, was better.” (15 June 2012, Rotten Tomatoes)

So, Tom – instead of Shankman, tap Cameron Crowe or Rob Reiner. They directed you in Jerry Maguire and A Few Good Men respectively – and both have helmed iconic rock films. More on those in a moment.


Tip #2: If any actors are going to sing, make sure they really know how to sing.

Rock of Ages cast member Malin Akerman told USA Today that you “made a good, good rock star, that’s for sure. I let him know if this acting thing doesn’t work out, he’s definitely got a second career as a rocker.”

Tom, you have all the right moves. You look the part and your stage presence could be a primer for wannabe rockers. However, if I’m listening to “Paradise City” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” I’d rather hear Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard than the man who slung drinks in Cocktail back when those songs were hits.

So, Tom – leave the singing to someone else. Maybe Jamie Foxx? You guys worked together in Collateral. The legendary Ray Charles approved Foxx to play him in the 2004 biopic Ray! and the result was an Oscar for Best Actor.


Tip #3: Musicians are not actors.

When it comes to pipes, Mary J. Blige is the 21st century version of Aretha Franklin. When it comes to acting, her role in Rock of Ages is akin to Lou Reed’s performance in 1983’s Get Crazy. That bad B-movie focused on a New Year’s Eve concert at a Fillmore East-type venue. Among the performers were a Mick Jagger type played by Malcolm MacDowell and a reclusive singer played by Reed. I’ll happily debate anyone who questions Reed’s contributions to the music world, but you can knock his acting ability all you want.

So, Tom, what can you learn from this? If you’re going to put musicians in your film, do it with documentary footage. Call up Martin Scorsese. He did great things for your career in The Color of Money. Since then, he’s won a Best Director Oscar and done a slew of music documentaries, including Living in the Material World, Shine a Light, No Direction Home, and The Last Waltz. The latter, about The Band’s farewell show, has been called the best concert film of all time. Watch Levon Helm. He looks convinced that if he pours enough energy and anguish into “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” he might prevent The Band from breaking up.


Tip #4: Avoid rock clichés – unless you can make them farcical.

The best moment in Rock of Ages comes when we get a glimpse into Stacee Jaxx’s psyche as he unloads to a reporter about the burden of being a rock star. I imagined a hard-hitting and probing film built around this premise. Then you launched into Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”.

The documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with a clichéd tale of rockers who drink a lot, do drugs a lot, and have sex a lot. Instead, it probes the life of rock musicians who will never be stars, but keep slogging away at it anyway, because it’s what they love to do.

Tom, if you must deal with clichés, use This Is Spinal Tap! as your guide. Director Rob Reiner brilliantly mocked the absurdities of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in what some consider the best rock movie of all time.


Tip #5: There’s a fine line between goofy and joyful.

Rock of Ages opens with Julianne Hough as a small-town girl determined to make it big. She boards a bus bound for Hollywood and soon passengers are crooning advice to her via Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.” I have no idea why no one on the bus broke into a screaming fit begging to get off at the next stop.

Tom – this brings us to Cameron Crowe, again. The man knows how to show power of music to create joy. Crowe explored his years as a Rolling Stone journalist in the fantastic Almost Famous. In one scene, the weariness of life on the road has clearly taken its toll. However, the tour bus travelers break into an impromptu sing-along with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and everyone on the bus – and in the theater – is left smiling.


Tip #6: Rock music has the power to heal.

The Music Never Stopped tells the real-life story of a 30-something whose short-term memory is robbed from him by a brain tumor. As a result, his mind is stuck in the teen version of himself in the early ‘70s. His father, desperate to connect with his son, realizes the only way to do so is through the music of his son’s youth. Despite vehement opposition to his son’s Deadhead tastes, the pivotal point of the movie is when father and son go to a Grateful Dead concert together.

Rock of Ages, however, just leaves viewers in pain. Tom, we know you’re hurting as well, but you can get through this. You can make a rock-themed blockbuster. After all, you’re the guy who taught us all to love old time rock ‘n’ roll – and in your tighty whiteys, no less.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Passenger’s “Let Her Go” released

Let Her Go

Passenger

Writer(s): Mike Rosenberg (see lyrics here)


Released: July 24, 2012


First Charted: April 2013


Peak: 5 US, 14 AC, 14 AA, 2 UK, 5 CN, 15 AU (Click for codes to singles charts.)


Sales (in millions): 6.0 US, 1.83 UK, 8.2 world (includes US + UK)


Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 2570.0 video, 1471.0 streaming

Awards:

Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Passenger is actually the moniker used by British indie pop/folk/rock singer/songwriter Mike Rosenberg. It started out as a group, but the other three members bolted in 2009 and Rosenberg kept the name. He released his third album, All the Little Lights, under the name in 2012. “Let Her Go” was the second single from the album. It topped the charts in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland. SF It won the British Academy’s Ivor Novello Award for Most Performed Work. WK

He came up with the song while finishing a set at a university bar in Australia. He was the supporting act and was met with utter indifference. While feeling down, he came up with the idea for the song about his ex-girlfriend. SF The woman he wrote about knows it is about her. He told Rolling Stone “We’re good friends now…I think she’s still kind of got mixed feelings about it. She’s happy for me, but it is pretty weird.” SF

Rosenberg told Female First that “the song has two meanings. The first is quite literal as I wrote it after a break up and it is about letting her go. But then there is a bigger idea going on and is more about not really understanding and knowing what you have until it is gone.” SF He told VH1 that while he “definitely felt like it had something,” he “didn’t believe I could have a song on the radio, because generally, folk music doesn’t get on commercial radio…I kinda thought that that kind of success was for other people.” SF


Resources:


Last updated 11/7/2021.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Indigo Girls Live in Kansas City at Harrahs’ Voodoo Lounge: July 19, 2012

Emily Saliers and Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls, image from coverlaydown.com

Last night my wife and I went to see the Indigo Girls at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge in Kansas City. We’ve both been fans since pretty much the beginning, but neither of us had ever seen this alternative rock/folk duo from Georgia. The genre tags are key here – I’ve viewed Amy Ray and Emily Saliers as more folk-rock singers. Consequently I expected a stripped-down affair with a lot of focus on acoustic guitar and, quite possibly, no additional musicians.

Instead, they were backed by a five-piece rock group called the Shadowboxers (who also opened). Who would have guessed the Indigo Girls would put on a show with four guitarists on stage? Then again, they had to make use of the rack of thirty-something guitars which sat behind the keyboardist. It also kept Melissa, the grungy fifty-something guitar tech busy since she brought Amy and Emily a new guitar for every song. I joked with my wife that at some point Melissa should hand the same guitar back and see if anyone noticed.

Indigo Girls in concert in Kansas City

The more rock-oriented show was better suited to Amy’s grittier voice and slightly more animated stage presence. The folksier Emily often appeared to be going through the motions, often looking bored and even annoyed. My wife and I both thought the highlights were the two songs which Amy and Emily performed with no one else on stage – “Power of Two” and “All That We Let In.” The latter, which Emily dedicated to a recently-deceased fan, nearly drew me to tears.

Part of the fascination of the show was seeing a group who is well-established, given their dozen albums released in their 25-year history. However, without a lot of airplay over the years, they are blessed with not having to commit to a set list dominated by songs which fans would never let them get away with skipping. Frankly, the only song I figured they never jettison was “Closer to Fine,” but even then the closing number – and the one which garnered the loudest crowd response – was actually “Galileo.”

Understandably five of the songs were from the most recent album Beauty Queen Sister (2011), but the set list was a nice representation of the duo’s entire careers with cuts from 9 of their 12 studio albums. Here’s the full set list with footnotes referencing the albums from which the songs came.


The Set List

1. Least Complicated 5
2. Heartache for Everyone 9
3. Gone 12
4. Get Out the Map 6
5. Tried to Be True 2
6. Feed and Water the Horses 12
7. Mariner Moonlighting 12
8. Power of Two 5
9. Shed Your Skin 6
10. Trouble 7
11. Moment of Forgiveness 8
12. Virginia Woolf 4
13. Making Promises 12
14. What Are You Like 11
15. Share the Moon 12
16. Love of Our Lives 11
17. Tether 9
18. Closer to Fine 2
19. Go 7
20. Galileo 4

ENCORE:
21. All That We Let In 9
22. Tangled Up in Blue *

Closer to Fine (live in Kansas City)

ALBUMS:
1 Strange Fire (1987): 0 songs
2 Indigo Girls (1989): 2 songs
3 Nomads Indians Saints (1990): 0 songs
4 Rites of Passage (1992): 2 songs
5 Swamp Ophelia (1994): 2 songs
6 Shaming of the Sun (1997): 2 songs
7 Come on Now Social (1999): 2 songs
8 Become You (2002): 1 song
9 All That We Let In (2004): 3 songs
10 Despite Our Differences (2006): 0 songs
11 Poseidon and the Bitter Bug (2009): 2 songs
12 Beauty Queen Sister (2011): 5 songs
* Bob Dylan cover (appeared on 1995’s live album 1200 Curfews)

Indigo Girl’s 2010 live album Staring Down the Brilliant Dream


Resources and Related Links:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Kerrang!’s “20 Greatest Rock Stars Ever”

image from Queen’s Facebook page

I am a fan of lists. They serve a purpose – they spark debate and hopefully inspire people to seek out new music. It is ridiculous to expect a list to make all people happy. In fact, I roll my eyes when people react to a list with “this sucks” or “whoever put this list together knows nothing about music.” Dear list haters – it shows an incredible arrogance to berate another’s tastes simply because they aren’t the same as yours.

However, I am baffled by this list by Kerrang!, a UK-based magazine devoted to hard rock and heavy metal. I’ll refrain from hypocritical comments like “this sucks,” but I will point out how this list differs from others.

1. This list is an oddity in that it is a mostly-singer list, but also includes AC/DC’s Angus Young, Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich, and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. Even #1, Jimi Hendrix, arguably gets there on the strength of his guitar playing more than singing.

2. Only 10 of the 20 names on this list make the DMDB’s list of the Top 100 Singers of All Time. Is the DMDB list definitive? Certainly not. I made the list and will concede it has problems (namely too little focus on the rock era). However, the DMDB list aggregates 27 best-of lists, which offers insight into what names are more universally recognized as the greats.

3. Perhaps the greatest indicator of just how idiosyncratic this list is comes in the “new” names. Seven people make the Kerrang! list – but none of the other 26 lists aggregated into the DMDB list. As already indicated, some of those are not singers (Angus Young, Lars Ulrich, Jimmy Page), but there are also singers making their virgin appearance in the database. Gene Simmons and Marilyn Manson are big enough names it might seem surprising not to have seen them show up already. But David Yow of The Jesus Lizard and Speedo of Rocket from the Crypt? Uh, yeah.

Anyway, here’s the list in full:


Kerrang!’s 20 Greatest Rock Stars Ever

Jimi Hendrix, image from greenobles.com

1. Jimi Hendrix
2. Billie Joe Armstrong
3. Freddie Mercury

Queen’s Freddie Mercury’s got nothing on Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong – so says Kerrang!; image from telegraph.co.uk

4. Axl Rose
5. Angus Young
6. Kurt Cobain
7. Gene Simmons

Gene Simmons – I’m surprised this is his first appearance out of the 27 best-singers lists aggregated by the DMDB. Image from theurbanpolitico.com.

8. Lars Ulrich
9. David Lee Roth
10. Dave Grohl
11. Iggy Pop
12. Courtney Love

Courtney Love is a bigger rock star than Jimmy Page? A bigger mess, perhaps. Image from ocweekly.com.

13. Bruce Dickinson
14. Jimmy Page
15. Marilyn Manson
16. Speedo (Rocket from the Crypt)

Rocket from the Crypt’s Speedo; no, I’d never heard of him either before the Kerrang! list. Image from smashingmag.com.

17. Mike Patton
18. Joey Ramone
19. Lemmy (Motorhead)
20. David Yow (The Jesus Lizard)

David Yow, apparently bigger than Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Bono, and a slew of others. Image from theplaylist.blogspot.com.


Resources and Related Links:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange released

Channel Orange

Frank Ocean


Released: July 10, 2012


Peak: 2 US, 11 RB, 2 UK, 3 CN, 9 AU


Sales (in millions): 0.69 US, 0.3 UK, 1.16 world (includes US and UK)


Genre: R&B


Tracks:

Song Title [time] (date of single release, chart peaks) Click for codes to singles charts.

  1. Start [0:45]
  2. Thinkin’ ‘Bout You [3:20] (4/17/12, 32 US, 7 RB, 94 UK, platinum single)
  3. Fertilizer [0:39]
  4. Sierra Leone [2:28]
  5. Sweet Life [4:22] (7/6/12, --)
  6. Not Just Money [0:59]
  7. Super Rich Kids (with Earl Sweatshirt) [5:04] (3/11/13, gold single)
  8. Pilot Jones [3:04]
  9. Crack Rock [3:44]
  10. Pyramids [9:52] (6/17/12, gold single)
  11. Lost [3:54] (12/17/12, 46 AU, 53 UK, gold single)
  12. White (with John Mayer) [1:16]
  13. Monks [3:20]
  14. Bad Religion [2:55]
  15. Pink Matter (with André 3000) [4:28]
  16. Forrest Gump [3:14]
  17. End [2:14]


Total Running Time: 62:18

Rating:

4.243 out of 5.00 (average of 14 ratings)


Awards: (Click on award to learn more).

About the Album:

Frank Ocean established himself “writing pop tunes for the likes of Brandy and Justin Bieber” RS’20 and released the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011. Despite a lack of conventional promotion, it developed a cult following and critical acclaim and there were even plans for Def Jam to officially release it. That never materialized, but singles for “Novacane” and “Swim Good” emerged. The former was a top 20 hit on the R&B chart and found its way onto the Billboard Hot 100.

“He stepped into his own avant-soul territory with Channel Orange, his official debut.” RS’20 “Ocean became one of music’s most elusive superstars – shy about speaking in public, impossible to pin down musically.” RS’20 The album was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy and won for Best Urban Contemporary Album. It was named Album of the Year by Acclaimed Music, Spin magazine, and Dave’s Music Database.

Ocean wrote songs for the album with producer and songwriter Malay, who’d also worked on Ultra, Nostalgia, and he attracted Pharrell Williams as one of the album’s producers. He also attracted Tyler, the Creator; André 3000, John Mayer, and Earl Sweatshirt into guesting on the album.

While much was made before and during the album’s release about Ocean’s possible homosexuality or bisexuality, the real story was the music itself. Ocean “sings with casually expressive vocals, free-form flow, conversational crooning, and alternating falsetto, and tenor registers.” WK The album was a mix of neo-soul, alternative R&B, electro-funk, jazz-funk, and psychedelia. While working in the studio, Ocean played Marvin Gaye, Jim Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Sly & the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder for inspiration. WK Critics picked up on the influences. New York Times Magazine noted “chord changes straight out of Wonder’s Innervisions [and] airy vamps that nod to Gaye’s Here, My Dear.” WK The Washington Post’s Chris Richards also noted links to Gaye and Wonder, as well as modern R&B artists D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu. WK

“Start” and “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”

The album kicks off with Start, a forty-five second “snippet of ambient sounds, bits of silence and flickers of noise, including a PlayStation booting up.” WK This segues into Thinkin’ ‘Bout You.” AMG, a “low-key torch song” WK with a “longing falsetto shuffle.” AMG The song features “soothing synth cycles, sparse keybards, muffled electronic percussion, and lyrics addressing a lover with white lies.” WK He originally wrote it for singer Bridget Kelly, but it became the first single for Channel Orange. It was a top-40 pop hit and reached the top 10 on the R&B chart. WK

“Fertilizer” and “Sierra Leone”

This is based on James Fauntleroy’s 2010 song of the same name. It is repurposed here “as an AM radio jingle and interlude about bullshit.” WK It flows in to Sierra Leone, which “incorporates chillwave and quiet storm styles with chime sounds, lo-fi beats, and polyphony similar to Prince’s 1985 song ‘Paisley Park.’” WK “Ocean’s singing exhibits quickly descending chord succession and is overdubbed against his spoken vocals.” WK The narrator recounts teenage lust for a girl, comparing their relationship to changes in the fortunes of Sierra Leone regarding diamonds and civil war. WK “Its lyrics address sex, conception, early parenthood, and childhood dreams.” WK

“Sweet Life,” “Not Just Money,” and “Super Rich Kids”

“The loose and bright Sweet LifeAMG and Super Rich Kids both explore decadence. They are linked by Not Just Money, “a spoken interlude with a woman discussing the importance of money on happiness.” WK “Super Rich Kids” “addresses young, wealthy characters’…fears of the financial crisis with dry humor” WK and references “the thumping piano line of Elton John’s 1973 song ‘Bennie and the Jets.’” WK

“Pilot Jones”

“The snapping/swooning Pilot JonesAMG “contains hazy electronic blips, impressionistic textures, experimental beat patterns, retracted sound effects, and vocal improvisation expressing the narrator’s ‘high.’” WK explores “an emotional dependency between drug addicts who confuse friendship with sexual love in their support of each other.” WK

“Crack Rock” and “Lost”

Ocean explores the affects of drug addiction on a couple of songs. “The new wave-style Lost is about a perplexed addict who hopes for a better life for him and his drug-cooked girlfriend.” WK Crack Rock “has fleeting multi-tracked harmonies, a non-sequitur chorus, and Ocean’s occasionally fractured breathiness conveying an addict’s voice.” WK In this “rumbling drug dependency tale,” AMG Ocean depicts an addict who “likens love to the highs and lows of drug use.” WK They lyrics address “corruption, broken homes, gun violence, and government indifference to rising crack-related deaths. The song was inspired by stories he heard while sitting in on Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous groups mentored by his grandfather. WK

“Pyramids”

This “spacey 10-minute suite” RS’20 has “the widest and most creative scope” AMG of any song on the album using Biblical imagery and shifting from ancient Egypt to a strip club as Ocean “contrasts the legendary fall of Cleopatra with the circumstances of a latter-day working girl” who works at a club called, naturally, Pyramid. WK It has been cited as the album’s centerpiece. WK PopMatters’ Brice Ezell wrote that it denotes “the vital midpoint of the overarching narrative” WK where “the wittier tone of the record’s front half gives way to an emotionally dense second half.” WK

“Monks” and “Bad Religion”

These songs both explore religion and its relationship with sex. “The relatively exuberant MonksAMG is a funk rock song “about finding nirvana.” WK It deals with “casual sex and devout religion in a narrative that shifts from an exciting concert to a metaphorical jungle.” WK

Bad Religion returns to the theme of unrequited love explored in “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You.” This “phenomenal brokenhearted ballad consisting of organ, piano, strings, and handclaps.” AMG is “the most personal song” AMG on the album. The song follows the confessions to a taxi driver about a secret, intimate relationship. Music journalist Aleixs Petridis said it deals with “the battle between religion and lust that’s been at the heart of soul music since it ceded from gospel.” WK

“Pink Matter”

This “bluesy lament with themes of sex and betrayal” WK includes lyrics which ”allude to philosophical conunundrums, extraterrestrial life, Japanese manga comics, and cotton candy” WK as the “narrator struggles between pleasure and universal meaning.” WK

“Forrest Gump”

This is another exploration of unrequited love, this time with “a bright, Motown-inspired chorus, a simple rhythmic cadence, gently strummed guitar, wistful vocals, and a perkily whistled coda.” WK The “playful” WK song “likens the titular film character to an adolescent crush, with homoerotic, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and allusions to scenes in the film.” WK

“End”

This skit “depicts and exchange between Ocean and a woman as they make love in the backseat of a car.” WK After the woman quotes the line, “You’re special. I wish you could see what I see” from the 2006 film ATL, Ocean leaves, “walks home in the rain, and sets his keys down with a sigh.” WK

Resources and Related Links:


First posted 9/24/2020; last updated 4/23/2022.

Friday, July 6, 2012

John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time: July 6, 1957

image from BeatlesBible.com

The St. Peter’s Woolton Parish Church in Liverpool, England, held a Garden Fete in the field behind the church on July 6, 1957. Among the entertainment were crafts, games, a fancy dress parade, a police dog display, and live music from The Quarrymen. The skiffle group was led by the 16-year-old John Lennon and also featured Eric Griffiths (guitar), Colin Hanton (drums), Rod Davies (banjoy), Peter Shotton (washboard), and Len Garry (bass).

image from BeatlesBible.com

A 15-year-old Paul McCartney was in the audience. Differing reports suggest he was riding his bicycle in the area or came with friends. Either way, he supposedly went to pick up girls. He saw John perform Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”

The Quarry Men – The Day Paul Met John

While the group was setting up for a dance in the church hall later that night, Paul was introduced to John via Ivan Vaughan, who sometimes played with the Quarrymen and was a classmate of Paul’s at Liverpool Institute. Paul played Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” and some Little Richard songs upside down on John’s right-handed guitar. John “dug him” because Paul looked like Elvis Presley and showed him how to tune a guitar.


Ivan told Paul that John wanted him to join the band. By some accounts, it wasn’t until October while other reports suggested roughly two weeks later. The pair often practiced and wrote songs on the front porch of John’s Aunt Mimi.


Awards for The Beatles:


Resources and Related Links: