The Cult Movie Club: Yellow Submarine (1968)

No, ‘Yellow Submarine’ doesn’t really have anything to do with the ’80s (or does it? See below…), but this website wouldn’t exist without the Fabs. And whilst obviously not strictly a ‘cult’ movie, it does feel somewhat forgotten these days, showing only once on terrestrial TV during my lifetime and rarely seen in the cinema.

But watching it on the big screen last week during its short 50th anniversary re-release, it struck me as the ultimate psychedelic artefact, a feast of day-glo imagery, pop psychology, Scouse kidology and mind-blowing music. The tale of the evil Blue Meanies’ battle against John, Paul, George and Ringo was a total trip and has also aged well – my nieces loved it.

Most importantly, the music sounded fantastic: it was a treat to hear ‘It’s All Too Much’, ‘All Together Now’, ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Only A Northern Song’ loud and proud. The other Beatles may not have particularly cared for George’s former and latter but they were revealed as true psych classics, with kickin’ bass and drums and disturbing/babbling string and horn cut-ups.

Ian MacDonald sums up ‘It’s All Too Much’ brilliantly in his classic book ‘Revolution In The Head’: ‘Lyrically very much the locus classicus of English psychedelia… The revolutionary spirit then abroad in America and Europe was never reciprocated in comfortable and sceptical Albion, where tradition, nature and the child’s-eye-view were the things which sprang most readily to the LSD-heightended Anglo-Saxon mind.’

I’m not a big cartoon fan but even I can tell that the animation in ‘Yellow Submarine’ is pretty special, a big influence on Monty Python, XTC (see the cover of Oranges And Lemons) and a myriad of ’80s video directors. The ‘Eleanor Rigby’ section is moving, unique, memorable. And then there’s the more-than-decent script: playwright Lee Minoff and screenwriter Erich Segal, later to hit big with ‘Love Story’, probably supply the spiritual oomph and ‘Odyssey’-like plot, while poet Roger McGough presumably added the authentic Scouse.

Of course, some object to the representation of the Fabs in ‘Yellow Submarine’. As Pauline Kael pointed out in her original New Yorker review, they were no longer rock stars but non-threatening family favourites, offering up an already nostalgic vision of ‘love’. Accordingly, the film was a reasonable hit in the UK but much bigger one in the States, released in the year of the Tet Offensive and deaths of Martin Luther King Jr./Robert Kennedy. Escapism was needed.

And maybe still is. But do see ‘Yellow Submarine’ on the big screen if you can. And if you’re like me, you may even shed a quiet, nostalgic tear during ‘When I’m 64’.

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Book Review: Steely Dan FAQ by Anthony Robustelli

The general consensus seems to be that there’s relatively little published analysis of Steely’s work. But is that accurate? Brian Sweet’s ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ was uncritical but biographically exhaustive; Don Breithaupt’s Aja book was excellent on The Dan’s musical methods, while Ian MacDonald wrote briefly but evocatively about Gaucho (probably my favourite album of the 1980s). And then of course there are the intriguing, sometimes amusing ‘geek’ websites Fever Dreams and The Steely Dan Dictionary.

So it seems there’s actually quite a lot out there, but all the same I was intrigued when ‘Steely Dan FAQ (All That’s Left To Know About This Elusive Band)’ appeared recently. Is there anything left to ‘know’?

The first thing to say about the book is that it’s hard to know exactly which ‘frequently asked questions’ it’s answering – it’s structured more in the style of Omnibus Press’s old ‘Complete Guides’ series, with chapters on individual albums containing summaries of each song. Then there are some extra sections ladled in dealing with Steely’s early days, their concert history, session players, solo projects and other aspects.

But, despite its rigid structure and a lack of any input from the two protagonists, ‘Steely FAQ’ comes up with some nice surprises. Robustelli is particularly good on Dylan and The Beatles’ influence on Becker and Fagen’s songs. There’s the odd musical detail which hits the spot (during ‘Show Biz Kids’, I’d never noticed that guitarist Rick Derringer references Elliott Randall’s famous ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ solo after the ‘They got the Steely Dan t-shirts’ line) and there are some excellent, rare photos throughout.

Steely in all their scuzzy glory circa 1973. From left: Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Donald Fagen

The book is good too on the recent history of the Dan (though musically it’s an era I generally struggle with), with everything you’d ever need to know about the albums and tours since the 1990s. There’s also a great chapter on cover versions, many of which I’d never heard (including Earl Klugh, The Pointer Sisters, Howard Jones, Dave Valentin, Grover Washington Jr. – approach them at your peril…).

On the minus side, musical/lyrical analysis is often scant and/or inaccurate – Michael Omartian’s solo piano outro on ‘Throw Back The Little Ones’ is described as ‘discordant’; the song ‘Pretzel Logic’ is summarised as ‘their first shuffle’ (what about ‘Reelin’ and ‘Bodhisattva’ then?) and the tutti line that kicks off ‘Parker’s Band’ is falsely characterised as a ‘dissonant chord’. It’s weird too that Robustelli doesn’t mention the websites listed above and pretty much ignores their (sometimes) excellent lyrical analysis in his song summaries.

But, in the end, the success of such a book is measured by whether it takes you back to the music with a fresh ear; ‘Steely Dan FAQ’ certainly does that, despite its shortcomings and rather matter-of-fact style. It’s well worth chucking into your holiday bag this summer.

‘Steely Dan FAQ’ is published by Backbeat Books.

Sideways & Steve Jobs: An Invitation To Windham Hill 30 Years On

Windham+Hill+An+Invitation+To+Windham+Hill+164800DVD commentaries come and go, but among the best I’ve heard is for ‘Sideways’, Alexander Payne’s classic 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. One scene, set at at the fictitious Frass Canyon winery, opens on the shot of a pale, very sincere acoustic guitarist playing a ‘tender’ ballad. On the commentary, Haden Church mutters: ‘Very Windham Hill-ish’, eliciting a chuckle from Giamatti. You get the feeling that the term ‘Windham Hill’ is a code for something not entirely positive…

frass canyon

For a brief period in my teens, a cassette copy of An Invitation To Windham Hill was always near the family hi-fi. I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t have bought it but he seemed to play it quite a lot anyway. It has since become one of those weird albums that I can’t shake despite having no particular interest in its musical genre or artists. Why is that? What is this kind of music really about once you subtract the nostalgia?

The Windham Hill label was founded in 1976 by Californian guitarist William Ackerman, who initially used the imprint to sell his own music out of a Palo Alto garage. Just down the road, Steve Jobs was establishing his Apple empire, and guess what: he was a big fan of Windham Hill, as Ackerman later recounted in an interview: ‘Steve fell in love with the aesthetic. All the Apple computers (played) Windham Hill music when you turned them on. It was such an exciting time. Anything seemed possible. People were making dreams come true, and I did feel part of that.’

Early on, the label emphasised solo acoustic instruments. Later, electronic music, contemporary bluegrass, smooth Latin/jazz and Celtic sounds were eased into the mix. The stark, ‘natural’ style of their album covers was apparently influenced by ECM, as was some of the musical ethos; Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the acoustic guitar work of Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny were apparently important to Windham Hill.

Also, in the same way that Jarrett’s album proved a huge sales breakthrough for ECM, a similar thing happened to Windham Hill – George Winston’s Autumn unexpectedly sold over a million copies and changed the label from a modest, regional imprint to nationally-known entity (and Autumn was the first of his seasonal-themed recordings!).

The whole Windham Hill package, both musically and visually, is very ‘white’, very ‘corporate’, very ‘Thirtysomething‘. It contributed massively to the mid-’80s popularity of New Age music (and the eventual backlash against it). It also has a lot in common with the Minimalist movement (including geography), and seems like music completely stripped of passion, rough edges, funkiness. Despite all that, I still find it pretty fascinating.

But Ian MacDonald has written persuasively about the infantilising effects of this stuff in his brilliant ‘The People’s Music’:

‘Something happens to people who listen to too much minimalism. They begin to smile facetiously, display a genially indiscriminate omni-tolerance and put their feet on your furniture. Some start wearing dungarees and playing with frisbees’!

There is definitely that element to An Invitation To Windham Hill, but it does also highlight the work of two genuinely excellent artists: Mark Isham and Michael Hedges. Isham has been a first-call soundtrack composer for 30 years now but his 1983 debut album Vapour Drawings is an ambient/electronic classic (more on that to come).

Hedges, who died in 1997, blew guitarists’ minds with the release of his debut album Aerial Boundaries. The title track manages to be both an amazing technical feat (it’s a solo piece for drastically detuned guitar sometimes featuring up to four intertwining melodies, achieved with a mixture of picking, tapping and hammer-ons) and also a substantial composition in its own right.

The other solo guitar tracks by Alex De Grassi and Ackerman are weirdly memorable, as are the solo piano pieces. In fact, the whole album is, and it might make a nice soundtrack to your wine-tasting evening or campfire gathering. Or it might not…

Track listing:

A1 George Winston ‘Thanksgiving’ (3:07),
A2 Alex De Grassi ‘Western’ (4:04),
A3 Mark Isham ‘Love Theme’ (From ‘Mrs. Soffel’) (4:11),
A4 William Ackerman ‘Visiting’ (6:07),
A5 Mark Isham ‘In The Blue Distance’ (4:07),
B1 Shadowfax ‘Angel’s Flight’ (4:00),
B2 Scott Cossu ‘Ohana’ (5:03),
B3 Michael Hedges ‘Aerial Boundaries’ (4:39),
B4 William Ackerman ‘The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter’ (3:50)
B5 George Winston ‘Longing/Love’ (5:11)