Have A Kinky Christmas

The Kinks

This song just fits my mood to a T, and it probably should be alarming that in about a decade, it has never failed to do so. But without its cheerful bitchiness and holiday-spirit cynicism (helpfully every bit as catchy as the actual carols), I probably wouldn’t make it through the day without wanting to tear off my own head and eat it.

The Kinks – Father Christmas

PS: Merry Christmas, everyone! (belated by now, but still)

I listen so you don’t have to! (Rock & Roll #2)

I haven’t forgotten about the Rock & Roll project I gave myself. It’s just taking a while, because listening to the top 30 from each year is not a half hour activity. I’ve made it to 1955, and tonight maybe I’ll listen to the hits from ’56.

I thought maybe I would find the perfect “Year Zero” for rock & roll, but things are never that simple, are they? Rocket 88 was an early harbinger of the mid 50’s revolution in popular music. But unlike 1789 or 1917, the rock & roll revolution can’t be precisely dated. It happened somewhere between 1955 and 1956.

Before 1955, the vast majority of popular songs seemed to have been aimed at adults: the brave  folks who had lived through the Great Depression and then WWII. They probably just wanted some light, cheery music to soundtrack their newfound peace and prosperity in the suburbs. The pop music of the early ’50s reflected the antiseptic new housing layouts springing up all across the United States. The songs were pleasant, shiny, squeaky-clean, and innocent. And they could also be funny, in a Marx Brothers / Abbott & Costello / Vaudeville kind of way. Jazz was by far the raciest game in town… but the jazz that made its way to the charts was suitably neutered for the consumption of people who might have looked a bit like this:

You ended up with a lot of music like this:

1952 was pretty dead, popular music wise. I tried to extract a playlist of decent songs from the year, but very little stood out. Even ‘Jambalaya’ — a song from the dawn of my parents’ generation that I once heard Usha Uthup’s sister do a raucous rendition of — sounds tame.

This novelty song is pretty funny:

1953 was a step in the right direction. Check out this hilarious spoof of the Dragnet theme (which is also pretty catchy), George and the Dragonet:

This odd Italian song is quite sprightly:

Listening to all this in the jaded, hypersexual 21st century, the general vibe is romantic, upbeat, inoffensive, and  even a little adorable — it was the Mickey Mouse era of pop culture. The Baby Boomer generation was just about learning to walk, and this is what their mothers might have sung to them in 1953:

But the older siblings of the postwar boom babies were rapidly growing up, and a new category of person — the teenager — emerged as a discernible demographic for the first time in human history. In the not-too-distant past, able-bodied working class adolescents either began toiling in the fields or factories (if they were boys) or preparing for marriage (if they were girls). Suddenly there was a group of people — not quite kids and not quite grown-ups — who had pocket money, free time, and a restless desire to escape stodgy domestic tranquility. Never having experience the Wars or the Depression, their depressions were more about boredom and repression. The stage was set for the rock and roll explosion…

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Further Listening

Billboard Hits of 1952

Billboard Hits of 1953

Billboard Hits of 1954

Han’s selections from the early ’50s

Rock and Roll (with a little help from YouTube & Grooveshark) #1

I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging, musical and otherwise, for several months now. I think what I need is a project that forces me to blog regularly. So I’ve decided to do a little rock and roll history series, with key tracks picked from youtube. Let’s see if I can keep this up! I’m not claiming to have all this stuff in my head — part of the motivation is to examine how the pop charts evolved over the decades. Wikipedia and other resources have made this easier than ever.

~

I’ve always felt that placing a work of art in context helps you develop a new appreciation for it. Not everyone responds to the historical lens, but I’d like to work with it, perhaps incorporating other lenses and prisms along the way. So the plan is to go chronologically through the history of rock and pop since the 1950s, until such time as the branching genealogical tree gets too tangled to climb up (or is it down?). It will be hard to stick to a strict chronology, so I might jump back and forth a bit. Maybe movie posters, trailers and historical snippets will help set the ambience too.

Origins are always murky, so let’s start with what is “widely considered” the first rock and roll song. 1951’s ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats — a band formed by Ike Turner (later infamous for being Tina Turner’s abusive husband).

It’s got several elements that soon came to define rock and roll. The rollicking pianos, the blues rhythm sans blues, and the lyrics celebrating the thrill of cruising in a beautiful, powerful American automobile. Chuck Berry would later transform these elements into sheer musical gold: his philosopher’s stone was the electric guitar. But we’ll come to that in a later.

One of the biggest hits of the era was Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’.

The top-selling album that year was by Thelonious Monk. But those were the days when most people bought singles on little 45 rpm records. The hits tended to be sweetly romantic, conservative, traditional. The occasional novelty song added some spice. But it was all very G-rated. In 1951 Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was one of the top grossing movies of the year. (I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well A Streetcar Named Desire fared that year. A very mature movie, even half a century later.)

The 1950s was the age of McCarthyism, so hard-left folkies like Pete Seeger found themselves playing it a little safe:

Rocket 88 might sound tame today, but amidst soppy songs like Johnnie Ray’s ‘Cry‘,  it must have jumped out of the radio. It may not seem like it now, but it was a harbinger of revolutionary times: music was becoming youthful, irreverent, and most importantly, fun.

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Here’s a grooveshark playlist with a handful of hits from 1951, ending with ‘Rocket 88’. Here’s a bigger playlist: the Billboard Top 30 for that year.

1951 in film:


Love is …….Courtney’s Last Name

I don’t think the subject of this post is very popular with the other authors of this blog and, as a public figure, is never anything short of polarising. I’m well aware of her off-the-wall tendencies and rumoured occasional lapses into being a terrible person, and also of the (nutty) rumours that she killed He Who I’m Not Going To Name Here Because This Post Is About Her After All. I’m also aware that this is the woman who, at the age of 12, chose a poem by Sylvia Plath (“Daddy”) to read at an audition for The Mickey Mouse Club. She didn’t get picked, of course.

Courtney Love might not be a good role model or a good person, but honestly, does an artist’s personality always have to be a factor in whether you like their work or not? (Picasso, according to some accounts, behaved like an absolute shit to the women in his life- does that stop anyone from appreciating his art?) Some people claim to be scared by the fact that her early- and best, if you ask me- work frequently sounded so angry, but some of those same people were also fans of The Clash and the Sex Pistols. What’s so unique about Courtney Love’s anger, then? The fact that she’s female? It’s not as if Hole was the only band of that era to give centre stage to an angry woman with a raspy voice and a guitar, but I can’t help the feeling that maybe what scares many people when it comes to Courtney Love circa 1993 is the fact that many of the things she was pissed off about back then, were things a girl could be justifiably pissed off about even now.

Anyway, here are songs to listen to, from Hole’s second and best album, Live Through This, for anyone who is reading and hasn’t heard them before or paid attention (is anyone even reading this blog anymore?):

Hole- Doll Parts

Hole- Violet

Die Antwoord

South African rap/rave/all-out mad people whose songs I’m getting weirdly fond of, even though reason tells me I shouldn’t be. It’s so strongly 90s-reminiscent, especially of Aqua (which I loved when I was twelve- helps that Yo-landi Visser’s voice is as high-pitched as Lene Nystrøm’s). Add rap, and crazy visuals and I have a feeling I will be sick of this in about six weeks- but in the meantime, I love it.

Listen to more at their official site– it’s slightly hilarious, if a little sad, that they had to cancel a tour because (of all the reasons) a bandmate went missing.

Twenty Ten!

I’m back in cold old Boston, and back to google reader-enhanced music discovery.

Firstly, folk sorceress Laura Marling is back with a new video, a new hairdo and a bigger sound. (I stole much of that line from the Guardian. Very apt.)

Secondly, Vampire Weekend is out with their second album, Contra. More Graceland-punk! It’s currently Billboard #1. Who says popular music has to suck?

You can sample it on grooveshark. The song “Cousins” also has a kick-ass video.

And thirdly, Midlake’s much-anticipated (by me at least!) second album is out. Well, technically it hasn’t been released yet, but you can grooveshark it. I haven’t decided if I dig it yet, but it’s growing on me. Their first album — a somber mix of Americana and melodic 70s soft-rock — is one of my all-time favourites now. Since August ’08 it has been permanently associated with the ghat road connecting Gudalur to Ooty. I listened to it on a KSRTC bus early one morning on my way home from Bangalore. It seemed to fit perfectly with the pre-dawn scenery of the upper Nilgiris.

I am unlikely to upload mp3s any more, but they’re easy enough to find. And for full albums just search for rapidshare links.

Here’s wishing everyone a musically satisfying year and decade!

Toujours Charlotte

It’s not exactly a common thing, finding singers who sound as good to me in their late thirties as they did in their early teens. Of course I must freely admit to bias in this case: Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of my favourite actor/singer hybrids (as I have said before, she is fantastic at both- try Jane Eyre for proof of the acting skills, since Antichrist sounds likely to make people queasy). And even if one were to contend that she sounds good because she gets cool collaborators (Serge Gainsbourg= Dad, we need a post on him sometime, Air= fans of Dad, collaborators with Charlotte later in her career), the fact still remains, she sounds amazing. IRM, her latest album (produced by Beck, whom I will always and forever associate with Loser) is no exception to the rule. It’s just that it’s even better than 5:55, less vague in spots, not quite as dreamy- and I strongly recommend listening to the track below, it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in a month and Charlotte’s combination of Brit accent,husk and whisper is as lovely as it ever was. I suspect it’ll probably be one of the best things I hear in 2010, too. 

Charlotte Gainsbourg feat. Beck- Heaven Can Wait