Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010

Billy Squier was a worldwide megastar until the day he decided it was a good idea to show the world that uber-macho guitar gods could… dance around in a pink tank top and white satin sheets in a video directed by choreographer Kenny Ortega. Ortega of course went on to make such iconic paeans to testosterone as the High School Musical franchise and Miley Cyrus’s Best of Both Worlds concert film, but Squier could not have known that this would be his legacy, considering he’d only been known for Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” video and Xanadu choreography at that point. Wait… what? OK, so Squier already knew full well what he was getting into by hitching his wagon to Ortega’s star.


Which, in my book, makes him a revolutionary! I mean, this video lays it on thick. He starts out waking up in the nude, shaking on a jaunty pair of pegged white drawstring pants and Flashdance-approved white muscle shirt featuring his quintessentially ‘80s Emotions in Motion color blocked logo (despite the fact that the song is from the album Signs of Life). And when that drum (machine?) kicks in, Billy goes to TOWN with the dancing. He’s finger-popping, he’s high-kicking, he’s floor-slithering—hell, he even throws in a stripper-shimmy down a fire-engine red poll. This is not the listless swaying or ham-shouldered jerkiness of your average rock frontman—Squier is so full-bore Bob Fosse in this performance that one half expects a sequined top hat to emerge from behind his perm.


Tagged as: billy squier
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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009

The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).


It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)


When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.


Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:


Music of the Carousel (1961)
Sounds of Sea Animals (1955)
Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965)
Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971)
American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009)
Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964)
Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975)
Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956)
Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975)
Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973)
Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)



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Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009
Tom Waits isn't the only Pride of National City

“Angel Baby” by Rosie & the Originals should be the official song of National City, California, the way states have flowers or universities have mascots. The song reached #5 on the Billboard charts in late 1960, and most people don’t even know who sang it, even if they are familiar with the tune.  But for generations of kids who grew up in neighborhoods like mine, “Angel Baby” will always be the anthem of our childhood and an indelible part of the soundtrack of our lives. Other songs like “Always and Forever” by Heatwave and “Together” by Tierra round out the top spots on this chart, but “Angel Baby” is, without a doubt, number one.


The woman who wrote and sang the song at the tender age of 15, Rosie Hamlin, lived in National City during her elementary, junior high and high school years. I always knew this, and it was a point of pride for anyone who came out of our much-maligned little suburb of San Diego. We have Tom Waits, and we have Rosie. But I didn’t know until recently how far her influence reached, and that the likes of Robert Plant and even John Lennon were fans! In the Houses of the Holy liner notes, right after the lyrics to “D’yer Mak’er”, Led Zeppelin wrote “What ever happened to Rosie & the Originals?” And Lennon went so far as to call “Angel Baby” one of his “all-time favorite songs”, when he recorded a cover version in 1973.


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Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009

Holcombe Waller is one of those underground artists that doesn’t seem to care about what is happening on the surface of the popular music landscape. He writes songs in his apartment in Portland, he performs (straight-forward performances, fused with a smattering of performance art), oh and he teaches a little too…an elective course at UC Berkeley, to be exact. All of which seems to be executed, and indeed achieved at the artist’s very own creative whim.


How my love affair with this man’s music began, is simple. I discovered him just over a year ago in a back issue of Butt, and from that moment, I felt compelled to ‘discover’ whether Holcombe had the artistic credos to back up his cheeky interview persona.


The quest began with a long wait, for a US import of his release, Extravagant Gesture to arrive to the UK. Once fully loaded and synced, it was only a week, before four tracks off of the album were in my Ipod’s most played list, with the layered, melodic cataclysm ‘Anthem’ taking the prized spot as the number one repeater. At that point, I started to understand why I felt so passionately about Holcombe. Somehow, he had managed to fuse Van Morrison’s lyrical delivery, with a touch of Gospel soul, and cradled that within the airy melodic landscape suited to the The Smiths.


On his next release, 2005’s Troubled Times, Holcombe seemed ready to tackle a different beast. The self-confessional poetry of his previous effort is still all over the place, except now it is aimed at us with a political undertone. The artist weaves his way through shiny melodies that intersperse tales of war and identity, with stories of powerless lovers in helpless relationships. To the reader it may sound ridiculous, but somehow Holcombe manages to begin with the refrain “Condoleez, baby pleez” (on ‘No Enemy’), only to shift to the nonchalant candour found in ‘You Love Me’, where the singer confesses to his lover that he is going to be “vacationing from pain”. From then on, we assume that the couple are on official ‘break’, when Holcombe suddenly tells him “if I [still] love you, we’ll be fine” (that is, if his lover manages to heat things up in the bedroom, of course).


The rest of the album is equally welcoming. The singer meanders between catchy refrains, where minimalistic lyrics have the power to ignite the imagination. When Holcombe sings on title track: “What you doing, patriot? Come buck-naked dance for free, Watch one-monkey down the last cherry tree”. One wonders whether Holcombe is singing about the brutalities of the Bush administration, or a more personal, romantic war – one that may be tearing the artist up inside.


After all this, I have yet to mention Mr. Waller’s greatest gift, his voice. An astonishing instrument, the singer’s four-octave vocal range veers from a gentle simmer to a pointed falsetto with a beguiling ease and precision. This instrument, coupled with his bare and evocative lyricism suggest that Holcombe is one of the more exciting, (and underrated artists) of recent memory.


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Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009

Let us put aside for a moment, the media hoopla that has surrounded Courtney Love over the last 15 or so years, hard as that may be, and let us consider some of the bold musical splendour on display in her band, Hole’s, first label outing, Pretty on the Inside.


From the very first song, Love who leads the band with her lacerating tongue yelps, that “when she was a teenage whore”, how her mother confronted her, to which, she responded that she “wanted it” because “she was so alone”—in turn, forcing riot grrls everywhere, to question the relationship between youth, abuse, and sexual practice. Especially unique here is how Love and her cohorts managed to capture a sense of unapologetic, alienated female angst. When Love screeches, “I’ve seen your repulsion, and it looks good on you”, and confronts her mother, about “what she put [her] through”—one cannot help but feel compelled by the lead singer’s character. From the outset, it is obvious that Love is yearning for public attention, craving it at whatever expense, in a sense, to erase the deep-set wounds that have marred her upbringing.


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