Play It Again, Jon: Songs vs. Performance Pieces

Jon Brion at the piano

Composer/producer/musician Jon Brion distinguishes between songs and performance pieces. What’s the difference? In a 2006 episode of Sound Opinions (rebroadcast in a 2012 episode of 99% Invisible), he cites Led Zeppelin as an example of the latter. Though he’s “a big fan” of Zeppelin, their songs “are the ultimate performance pieces.” He explains,

And the way I can sort of prove my point is: have you ever listened to anybody else play a Led Zeppelin song and gone “Oh, that was a great satisfying experience”? Except for Dread Zeppelin, who I loved. What people like is that specific guitar sound, that specific performance, in concert with that specific drum sound, with that specific drummer playing that specific part.

Another example of the performance piece, Brion says, is most punk rock.

In contrast, a song stands on its own, separate from any individual performance. As examples of that, he cites George Gershwin, Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, and Thelonious Monk.  In the interview, which I’ve excerpted below (and to which you should listen), he demonstrates his point by playing songs on the piano — including a lovely arrangement of a few bars from Nirvana’s “Lithium.”

His distinction between songs and performance pieces is a really useful way of thinking about different types of music.  However, like all such paradigms, the more you look at it, the more the boundaries between songs and performance pieces start to blur.  For example, a key marker for Brion is the cover version.  As he says, you could play a Gershwin song “in the style of Led Zeppelin, and have a completely satisfying experience,” but “when you start playing Zeppelin songs, say, in the style of, like, 1920s music, suddenly it’s laid bare that, oh no, it was about those people, and those people were in a room, and it was great.”

Led Zeppelin in 1970, performing at the KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark

There are two flaws in that otherwise compelling argument.  First, there are great covers of Zeppelin, and of punk. Bonerama does a fantastic version of “The Ocean” (2007). You listen to it and think: why didn’t Zeppelin ever tour with a trombone section? (Or, at least, this is what I think when I listen to it.) Dolly Parton does a lovely bluegrass cover of “Stairway to Heaven” (2002). And then there’s Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s swing version of “Black Dog” (1999)

Bonerama’s “The Ocean” (2007)

Dolly Parton’s “Stairway to Heaven” (2002)

Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s “Black Dog” (1999)

For punk rock, I could point you to Yo La Tengo’s surf-rock-lite cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976) or the Indigo Girls’ acoustic version of the Clash’s “Clampdown” (1979)

Yo La Tengo’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1996)

Indigo Girls’ “Clampdown” (1993)

So, if (according to Brion’s rubric) punk or Zeppelin resists the cover version, well, there seem ample examples to contradict that claim.

The second problem is that a lot of Zeppelin and a lot of punk are already cover versions. In the case of Zeppelin, they tended to take from African American artists without attribution. “Moby Dick” (1969) borrows liberally from Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961), “Whole Lotta Love” (1969) lifts a fair bit from Muddy Waters’ version of “You Need Love” (1963, a cover of Willie Dixon).  And those are just a few examples.

Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961)

Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” (1969)

Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” (1962)

Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)

Some of the most famous punk songs are covers — the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” (1979) and Patti Smith’s “My Generation” (1976). The latter is a cover of the Who, and the former a cover of the Bobby Fuller Four (who were covering Sonny Curtis & the Crickets).


The Clash, performing in London, 1979

Patti Smith Group, performing in Germany, 1979

In sum, the line between song (which can be covered) and performance (which cannot) seems blurrier than Brion’s distinction admits.

Patti Smith, New York City, 1976I don’t think his distinction lacks utility, though. As a connoisseur of covers, I would add — in defense of his argument — that there are far fewer good covers of Zeppelin than there are of Nirvana or Radiohead. In this sense, we might see my examples above as exceptions to the rule. Similarly, what’s punk about Patti Smith’s cover of the Who is her performance. You can do a good cover of the Who’s version, but you can’t do a good cover of Patti Smith’s version. The only way to cover of Patti Smith’s version would be as a Patti Smith tribute band, a mere imitation of the original. (In my view, by definition, a good cover brings forth a facet of the song that the original version does not. In their attempts to be faithful, tribute bands don’t meet this standard.)

Brion’s song-vs.-performance-piece distinction is handy, even if it’s not quite the paradigm that it at first seems. That is, his idea is useful less for distinguishing songs from performances and more for giving us a way of thinking about musical taste.

George GershwinUltimately, that’s what his distinction highlights: Jon Brion prefers Gershwin and Cobain to, say, Page, Plant, and Ramone. His too-frequent mentions of his alleged “love” for Led Zeppelin are him protesting too much, giving him rhetorical cover for saying that Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs. And yet, even while his rubric is just disguising personal preference in the language of objectivity, this is one key function of criticism. We find formal terms to talk about what moves us, or fails to move us. Or, to put this another way, we need to find these terms in order to have a conversation with people whose likes and dislikes differ from our own.

Terms like Brion’s help us talk about taste. They don’t need to be perfectly theorized to be useful.

Related posts:

Photo credits: Jon Brion from MTV, Led Zeppelin from Performing Musician, Patti Smith from Morrison Hotel Gallery, George Gershwin from Music Times.

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Art for Art’s Sake; or, OK Go Videos Make Me Happy

OK GoOK Go videos: They’re surprising, clever, and eminently re-watchable. They also have an appealingly handmade feel to them, harkening back to a time when digitally manipulating images was too expensive for a music video. For the stop-motion classic “Sledgehammer” (1986), Peter Gabriel had to lie still for hours, beneath a plate of glass, while people from Aardman Animations manipulated fruit above him.  And they’re unapologetically Art with a capital “A.” Yes, OK Go hopes you’ll buy the band’s music, but the videos don’t feel like they’re trying to sell you anything beyond the sheer enjoyment of watching creative minds trying to create something beautiful. If this were the 1980s, I would be waiting by the TV, ready to hit “Record” on the VCR when the next OK Go video came on. Fortunately, today, I can simply collect eighteen of them right here, on this webpage.

I Won’t Let You Down (2014)

You see, there’s a new OK video out today: “I Won’t Let You Down,” directed by Kazuaki Seki and Damian Kulash, Jr., with choreography by Furitsukekagyou Airman, art direction by Jun Nishida, and creative direction by Morihiro Harano.  The whole thing is done in one take, shot with a drone (!) — one reason, I gather, that it had to be filmed in Japan. In Billboard article about the creation of the video, OK Go bassist Tim Norwind described the experience as “the best hour of my life.”


Unless I’ve miscounted (always a possibility), this is the eighteenth video from the band’s art-for-art’s-sake era, the latest in a nine-year period of video innovations that began with “A Million Ways.”

A Million Ways (2005)

The first OK Go video choreographed by Trish Sie (sister of lead singer Damien Kulash), “A Million Ways” is also OK Go’s first viral video.  Co-directed by Sie and OK Go, it establishes a key piece of the band’s video aesthetic: performed live, all in one take. It also introduces dance as a recurring motif.

It’s not that their pre-”Million Ways” videos are bad. “Get Over It” (2002), “Don’t Ask Me” (2003), “Don’t Ask Me (Dance Booth version)” (2003), and “You’re So Damn Hot” (2003) are all visually compelling, and some even buck convention — the ping-pong pause in the middle of “Get Over It,” for example. But “A Million Ways” starts their period of video innovation.

Here It Goes Again (2006)

Also choreographed by Trish Sie and co-directed by her and the band, “Here It Goes Again” is in many ways synonymous with the term “viral video.” If you’ve been on-line in the past eight years, you’ve almost certainly seen this one.

It ups the ante on “A Million Ways”: not only are they performing choreographed dance moves, but they’re doing it all on treadmills (all of which, incidentally, were set up in Sie’s basement).  It inspired many fan videos, a Simpsons tribute, and the band even performed the dance live (on treadmills!) at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Invincible (2006)

Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, “Invincible” is… well, actually, less of an eye-opener than the previous two. Using multiple takes, it juxtaposes shots of the band performing (on one side of the screen) with stuff getting blown up (on the other side of the screen). It harkens back to the pre-”A Million Ways” period. But you can’t expect genius every time. And, anyway, it still has sharp visuals, and is fun to watch.

Do What You Want (2007)

There’s actually an earlier video for this song, directed by Olivier Gondry, but I can’t find it on-line.  This video, directed by Damian Kulash, finds the group back in risk-taking mode. Wearing outfits that match the wallpaper behind them, the band and other performers rock out. But because the costumes prevent us from seeing their faces, even the rock stars become oddly anonymous, phantoms launched from the wallpaper.

I think also of the masked couple in Magritte’s The Lovers (1928) — intimacy obstructed by cloth. Here, we have improbably energetic performers, encased in wallpaper suits. But there’s still a tension between what you expect (stasis) and what you get (activity).

WTF? (2009)

With “WTF?”, the first video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, OK Go is fully back in innovation mode. Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, the band creates another video which prompts you to wonder OK,… so, how did they do that?

Knowing that we’d wonder how they did it, the band also created what I think is their first making-of video, something that would become a regular feature.

This Too Shall Pass (Marching Band) (2010)

The first, and less famous, of the two “This Too Shall Pass” videos features the University of Notre Dame’s Band of the Fighting Irish and took 20 takes to get right. Brian K. Perkins and OK Go directed the piece, shot in a single take.

I love that they recorded a whole new arrangement of the song for the video, too.

This Too Shall Pass (Rube Goldberg Machine) (2010)

Directed by James Frost, OK Go and Syyn Labs, this is the better-known version of “This Too Shall Pass.” In some ways, it inaugurates an even more ambitious period of video-making for the band — and establishes the Rube Goldberg Machine as a key part of the OK Go aesthetic.

There’s a series of behind-the scenes videos, of course!

End Love (2010)

Filmed over the course of 18 hours (including a period when the band sleeps!), and then sped up (at different speeds), “End Love” also features… a goose! They shot the video in a park, and the goose, evidently, wanted to be a part of it. Hey, can you blame her?  Directed by OK Go, Eric Gunther, and Jeff Lieberman.

White Knuckles (2010)

Bringing back choreographer Trish Sie, “White Knuckles” shows the band mastering the art of… stacking!  Yes, stacking. And working with dogs. Again, shot in one take!

And, yes, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos for this one!

Last Leaf (2010)

A stop-motion video using over 2000 pieces of toast, each laser-cut with art by the band and Geoff Mcfetridge. The notion of telling a story via animation on toast compliments this quiet song’s themes of longing and impermanence. Sure, it’s an unusual way to express these ideas, but that sense of novelty is what makes it an OK Go video. 

Back from Kathmandu (2010)

In this video, OK Go takes its fans on a GPS-led parade through L.A. Their goal? To use a GPS app to spell out “OK Go.”  The New Orleans vibe of the parade has its pleasures, but the concept is more fun than actually watching the video documenting the concept. Still, though, I give them credit for trying something different.

All Is Not Lost (2011)

Fearturing the dance troupe Pilobolus, and directed by OK Go, Pilobolus, and Trish Sie, “All Is Not Lost” brings us back to the Wow! How did they do that? for which OK Go has rightly become famous.  There is also an interactive version of this one, which is well worth checking out.  Really.  It is “way cooler,” just as the video (below) tells you.

Also, for those who want to know how it was made, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos.

Needing/Getting (2011)

Directed by Brian L. Perkins and Damian Kulash, the band drives a Rube-Goldberg’d car through a Rube Goldberg’d landscape. Instead of making a Rube Goldberg machine that choreographs movement and image to the song (as in “This Too Shall Pass”), this machine actually performs the song it accompanies. According to the YouTube page, “The video took 4 months of preparation and 4 days of shooting and recording. There are no ringers or stand-ins; Damian took stunt driving lessons.”

And you bet there’s a behind-the-scenes video series for this one!

Skyscrapers (2011)

The final video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, “Skyscrapers” features choreographer Trish Sie dancing the tango with Moti Buchboot.  Sie also directed it.  Brightly colored, elegant, and absorbing, the video is a reminder of the band’s understanding that we (its audience) don’t require Rube Goldberg machines to hold our attention. It’s also nice to see Sie — who launched the band’s career as video auteurs — move to a starring role.

Muppet Show Theme Song (2011)

If you’ve watched the preceding videos, now… watch the meta-video!  OK Go and the Muppets pay homage to the OK Go oeuvre and, of course, to the Muppets!

Primary Colors (2012)

For Sesame Street, OK Go did a stop-motion video explaining the primary colors. Watching it again reminds me, too, that their post-”A Million Ways” videos all have an almost childlike playfulness to them.  There’s a sense of hey, what if we tried this?  The end result requires careful planning, of course. But the band and their collaborators seem animated by a spirit of adventure and experimentation.

The Writing’s on the Wall (2014)

And that brings us full circle, back to the first video from their latest record (Hungry Ghosts, which I strongly recommend).  It’s another single-shot video, but this time the emphasis is on optical illusions.  It reminds me a bit of the optical-illusion street art where, from the correct angle, the street has suddenly become (for example) a cliff. Directed by Aaron Duffy, Damian Kulash, Jr. and Bob Partington, “The Writing’s on the Wall” is great fun to watch. And that, friends, is the theme of the OK Go videos. They are fun. The band is making art because it is fun to make art.  They’re art for art’s sake in the very best sense of that term.

On this one, they’ve gone one better on their making-of videos, creating an interactive making-of video. It’s as fun as the video itself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of OK Go’s music-video oeuvre. I wonder what they are planning now…?

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At the Drop of a Hat: A Dozen Essential Songs by Flanders and Swann

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann

We’ve had a lot of luck with records. Some of the songs that have made our names a household word — like “slop-bucket” — are the little series of animal songs that we’ve been writing.

— Michael Flanders, introduction to “The Gnu,” At the Drop of a Hat (1960)

The Bestiary of Flanders and SwannAs Michael Flanders says, the animal songs made him and his partner Donald Swann famous. The duo’s best-known such number may be “The Hippopotamus,” with its cheerful, waltzing chorus of

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow,

And there let us wallow

In glorious mud!

Indeed, I suspect that even a few Americans know this one. I say that because, if you are English, you’re very likely to at least have heard of Flanders and Swann. If you are American, well, that’s much less likely. (In terms of Flanders-and-Swann awareness, Canadians seem somewhere in between — more than Americans, but less than Britons.) So, to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with Flanders and Swann, let’s listen to “The Hippopotamus.”

There’s even a children’s-book version of this, The Hippopotamus Song: A Muddy Love Story (1991), illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. (I haven’t seen the book, and so can’t vouch for how well or poorly the song has been adapted.)

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, At the Drop of Another HatIf you’re unfamiliar with this duo, you might think of Flanders (1922-1975) and Swann (1923-1994) as something of a British Tom Lehrer (b. 1928), but without the cynicism. As Flanders himself observes in At the Drop of Another Hat (1964), “The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth — and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.” They are satirists, but (usually) lack the aggression of Lehrer, favoring instead satire’s sense of play and a kind of wry, bemused judgment — or, in the case of songs like “The Hippopotamus,” more whimsy than judgment.

Though Lehrer famously set his “The Elements” to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song,” the librettist and composer of The Pirates of Penzance had a much stronger influence on Flanders and Swann. Flanders was the Gilbert, writing nearly all of the lyrics, and Swann the Sullivan, writing all of the music (and the occasional lyric). With wit, wordplay, and complex rhyme schemes, the duo wrote over a hundred songs, and between 1956 and 1967 gave hundreds of performances in the UK, Canada, and the US — plus, in 1964, a few in Australia and New Zealand. George Martin (yes, the Beatles’ producer) produced their best-known albums. David Hyde-Pierce and John Lithgow are probably the duo’s best-known contemporary fans.

Never heard of Flanders and Swann? Or care to be reacquainted? Well, here’s my (admittedly subjective) list of essential songs, complete with audio, commentary, and (when available) video. The first was “The Hippopotamus Song” (above); so, moving to the second….

2) “A Transport of Delight”

"Wanted; a crew for this bus," by Jack Maxwell. Agency: Clement Dane Studio, 1955  Published by London Transport, 1955. (From London Transport Museum)A paean to the “monarch of the road,” that “Scarlet-painted London Transport, Diesel-engined, Ninety-seven horsepower Omnibus!” Swann takes on the role of driver, Flanders the conductor, and they sing heartily, with a mix of affection and mockery.

A few allusions of note. “Earth has not anything to show more fair” is from Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” “Army lorry” puns on the Scots song “Annie Laurie,” which includes the line “And for bonnie Annie Laurie, / I’d lay me down and dee” (“dee” being a Scots pronunciation of “die”).

3) “The Gas-Man Cometh”

The GALMI method has its flaws, as this song points out. (No, the song doesn’t use the expression “GALMI,” but that’s an acronym for “Get A Little Man In.” I’ve heard it on British sitcoms.)

4) “First and Second Law”

Showing their range, Swann and Flanders explain thermodynamics via a jazzy scat number. This is still the reason I know anything about thermodynamics. You see, Flanders and Swann are the music of my childhood. Though I grew up north of Boston Massachusetts, my parents lived in London during the latter half of the 1960s. They even saw Flanders and Swann perform there. In the U.S., borrowing the records from friends, my dad taped, on a reel-to-reel (the bulkier predecessor of the cassette recorder), At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat — though I later learned that he only taped the pieces that he liked. Fortunately, that was the majority of each record.

5) “The Gnu”

In the introduction (which I’ve omitted), Michael Flanders talks about the song’s inspiration, which involves being unable to park (or get out of his car) on the street where he lives:

The road itself is a bit of a snag. That road has got the steepest camber on it — you know, the old slope — of any road in London. It’s about one in three. If you try to park your car by the pavement, as people do from time to time, the car’s tilted, like that. Well now, that means you can only get this near-side door open a little bit, then the pavement stops it. If you want to use this door you can make a jump for it. Bad enough all up and down the road, but just outside where I happen to live, 1a (of course it would be), it’s just like the great North face of Everest. The thing’s right over on its side. You can’t get this door open at all, you’ve got to keep it full of petrol or it shows empty. I can’t use this door, I’ve got to get into this thing [Flanders’ wheelchair], you see, on the pavement.

He asks his local council about it, and they send a man round to take a chunk out of the road so that it’s level in front of Flanders’ house, thus allowing him to navigate from his car to his wheelchair and vice versa. However, ever time he arrives at his space, someone else is parked there — always the same car. “The number of this car,” he says, “I’ll never forget this number as long as I live. I’ve sat gazing at it for hours on end sometimes, thinking of nothing else. The number is 346-GNU.”

Gnu, a.k.a. Blue Wildebeest

In case you are doubtful, a gnu is a real animal. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a “South African quadruped (Catoblepas gnu), belonging to the antelope family, but resembling an ox or buffalo in shape; also known by its Dutch name wildebeest.”

6) “Misalliance”

In which two plants become star-crossed lovers, a silly premise with a plaintive melody that makes it curiously affecting.

7) “Madeira M’Dear”

A bit more risqué than the other songs here, “Madeira M’Dear” contains excellent zeugma, when one word gets used to refer to more than one word in the same sentence.  These particular lyrics often use the first word (the multi-referential one) in more than one sense. So, for example, “She lowered her standards by raising her glass, / Her courage, her eyes — and his hopes.”

Here are Flanders and Swann performing the song for American television in 1967. Flanders glosses “flat” as “apartment” for American viewers and — presumably to appease censors — changes “prowess” to “finesse.” Incidentally, if he looks a little breathless, that may be because he has only one working lung. The polio that put him in the wheelchair also took away one of his lungs.

UPDATE, 7 Aug. 2014, 1:30 pm: In retrospect, this song might better be classified among those that have not aged well (described in my caveat below). I direct readers to my conversation with Jonathan Dresner (in the comments) for precisely why.

8) “A Happy Song”

Flanders and Swann, At the Drop of a Hat (1957 version).This represents the absurdist side of the duo — also on display in such numbers as “Kokoraki.” If you enjoy Spike Jones or Mel Blanc, then “A Happy Song” is for you.  It’s one of three “Songs for Our Time” on At the Drop of a Hat, each of which, Flanders explains, is his and Swann’s attempt to write a pop hit. Of this particular one, Flanders tells the audience, “We felt that really, on the whole, in this time of crisis and political conflict, what the world needed most was another simple happy chorus song, something which expressed the feelings of all the ordinary people all over the world, and in which everyone could join.” He then pronounces the song’s nearly unpronounceable refrain, and invites people to “join in, if you wish.”

9) “The Rhinoceros”

Another reason that Flanders and Swann’s songs are great for children and adults: they expand your vocabulary, as in this song’s refrain, “the bodger on the bonce.” As a noun, “bodger” is “one who bodges; a botcher”; as an adjective, “bodger” is (in Australian slang) a term for “Inferior, worthless.” “Bonce” is a slang term for “head.” So, then, according to the lyric, the rhino has something botched on its head. (All definitions courtesy of the OED.)

10) “The Armadillo”

Who knew that Armadillos had love songs? And with such plaintive melodies, too!  (The track begins, however, with an elephant joke — the previous song on the record is “The Elephant.”)

11) “Slow Train”

An elegy for closed railway stations, this one is surprisingly poignant. As Flanders says in his introduction,

Unusual song this for us, perhaps, because it’s really quite a serious song, and it was suggested by all those marvelous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names, all due to be, you know, axed and done away with one by one, and these are stations that we shall no longer be seeing when we aren’t able to travel anymore on the slow train.

Blandford Forum railway station in April 1963

TheGawain provides more detail in this great post on Flanders and Swann. As he tells us, in 1963 Dr. Richard Beeching

wrote a lengthy report on the profitability of British Railways (or lack thereof) and concluded that most of the rail network made no net contribution towards any profits that could potentially be made. He duly recommended removing about half of the route mileage and rather more than half the stations. The Tories implemented the report with unusual haste for any Government; Labour largely opposed it up until the moment when they saw the overall profit/ loss account of the nation and duly decided to continue.

This cross-party enthusiasm for Beeching left very little opportunity for the pro-rail remnants of the population to express any form of opposition except by attempting to prove “undue hardship” at closure inquiries. An examination of the railways which survived on this basis (prime examples include Middlesborough to Whitby, Inverness to Wick & Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh, Glasgow to Mallaig and Plymouth to Gunnislake) show that in order to demonstrate that closing the local railway would cause undue hardship it was necessary to show that the area was devoid of alternative roads. As a result the minor rural dead loss railways going nowhere which deserved to be axed all survived, while the middling routes serving notable market towns found that the market towns were also served by roads, enabling easy closure of the railways.

The Government then proceeded to spend vast amounts of public money building roads to replace these railways which needed closing down because the Government didn’t have any public money available to spend on keeping them running.

That’s the context for this song. For more, see TheGawain’s piece or this very thorough Wikipedia essay on the song.

12) “The Sloth”

A comic ode to laziness.

A sloth

Yes, there are many other songs I could have included. Fans of Flanders and Swann will no doubt be asking: What about “Design for Living”? Where’s “A Song of the Weather”? And what about “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”?  Fair questions.  I decided to limit myself to a dozen, but I concede that there may be a better twelve songs to introduce people to Flanders and Swann.

A few songs have not aged as well — either because they’re topical, or because casual sexism or imperialism is (happily) no longer culturally acceptable. Remarkably, there are very few such songs. So, on the one hand, “The Reluctant Cannibal” suggests that people everywhere face the same problems, such rebellious children (who, in this case, “won’t eat people”) and parents baffled by their offspring. To their credit, Flanders and Swann also avoid pseudo-primitive dialect, singing in their usual accents. On the other hand, the humor of this piece depends upon the difference between “civilized” society and the more primitive “Tropics” (they don’t provide a specific location where these cannibals reside). The song is not in the realm of, say, the first line of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” (“Chinks do it, / Japs do it. / Up in Lapland, / Even little Laps do it”), but the piece hasn’t endured quite as well as their animal songs.

The Complete Flanders and SwannInterested in learning more? I don’t think there’s an ideal Flanders and Swann “hits” collection. In any case, the live records include amusing spoken-word performances (mostly from Flanders), which would need to be either included or excised — in assembling this, I’ve mostly done the latter. You could use iTunes to create your own “hits” collection, and then (depending on your fondness for Flanders’ monologues) either retain or cut the spoken-word parts. In iTunes, you can do that under the “Options” setting of a song, by changing the start time and/or stop time.

Hat Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector's EditionOr, if you seek the full experience, then I recommend The Complete Flanders and Swann, which includes At the Drop of a Hat, At the Drop of Another Hat, The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann plus some bonus tracks, and a great booklet featuring illuminating notes and commentary by Charles Fox.  I’ve just discovered there’s another collection with more music I’ve never heard — including many performances not in The Complete Flanders and Swann. Sadly, Hat-Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector’s Edition is out of print.

Fortunately, Flanders and Swann’s many admirers have gathered lots more information for you to peruse:

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“There Are Loads of Rules”: The Art of the Mixtape

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again […] A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention […], and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, […] and . . . oh, there are loads of rules.

— Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (1995), pp. 88-89

I make a lot of mixes, and occasionally I post them on this blog. I’d originally planned to post many more of them, but . . . it’s fairly labor-intensive, and so I don’t. Recipients of these mixes have asked me how I make them. (Specifically, my friends Speed and Ted both asked me this question last month.)  So, here is my answer.

Westward, Oh: a mix made in July 2000 (the month I moved from Charleston, South Carolina to Manhattan, Kansas)

Above: a mix from July 2000, when I moved from So. Carolina to Kansas

1. No repeats. Since I began making these on CD (2003), I’ve not repeated any song across the three main mix series: uptempo (which I make the most frequently), midtempo, and quiet.  You could listen to all three series and not hear a single song repeated.  Indeed, within any given series — the kids mixes, birthday mixes, mixes on a theme (Summer, Halloween, Christmas/Holidays, Back-to-School, the end of the world), etc. — no song can repeat.

2. Only one song per artist per CD. But that’s artist, and not composer. You can have two Cure songs, as long as one is a cover. Technically, you should not have a Matt Berninger solo track if you already have a song from the National (the band for which he is lead singer), though this is a little more flexible — I bend this “should,” from time to time, including on the mix that I’m about to offer as an example.

3. There needs to be some connection between adjacent tracks.  So, on my most recent midtempo mix, “Everyone Says ‘Hi,’” here are the connections between the first seven songs. (If this is more detail than you really need, feel free to skip ahead to point no. 4.)


Everyone Says “Hi”

1)    Pennies From Heaven  RON SEXSMITH (2013)

Sweet Relief III: Pennies from HeavenThis beautiful song seamlessly mingles optimism and melancholy, cheer and sadness. Written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston and first recorded in the mid-1930s, “Pennies from Heaven” has an introductory verse that often gets omitted (Bing Crosby’s 1936 recording includes it; Billie Holiday’s 1936 recording does not). Ron Sexsmith’s version — done for Sweet Relief III: Pennies from Heaven — includes that opening verse, which is one reason I chose it. The other reason is that it sets the tone for the rest of the mix, and that tone is … mixed. It’s neither joyous nor sad, but somewhere in between. (Perhaps, too, it’s why Dennis Potter chose the title for his teleplay/screenplay?)

2)    Heaven  SIMPLY RED (1985)

Simply Red, Picture Book“Pennies from Heaven” to this cover of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” is quite an obvious link: the title, and the fact that both are covers. It also continues the theme of emotional complexity. Though sung with sincerity (by David Byrne on the original, and by Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall here), the description of Heaven is ambiguous. “Heaven is a place, / A place where nothing ever happens”: does that imply pleasant solitude or endless boredom? “The band in heaven / They play my favorite song. / Play it one more time. / Play it all night long”: does this reflect the joy of getting to hear your favorite music or the annoyance of a popular song getting overplayed? I don’t know, and the song never resolves this tension. I chose the Simply Red cover because it’s a bit smoother, more soulful than Talking Heads’ original, and thus offers a more seamless transition from Sexsmith’s track to the next one.

3)    Little Vacation  VIC CHESNUTT (1996)

Vic Chesnutt, About to ChokeFor those who believe in an afterlife, Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009) is already there. With a sharper sense of irony than the Talking Heads tune, this one also describes a desired location in terms that make you wonder how desirable it is, really. Perhaps it would be better if I stayed home. Vacation is a metaphor for what he wants, and so is “scenic vista,” “a long awaited chemical buzz,” “a far off twister,” and “an unexpected run-in with the fuzz.” The first item in this list has more appeal than the last one, and the ones in between are more mixed (hey, at least the twister is far off…). Using the language of bureaucracy to describe a holiday is also brilliant: “Why don’t we have a little council meeting / And hash out something real?” He promises “Robert’s rules of order will be observed. / I’ll be the parliamentarian / with an unswerving dedication.” The ambivalent longing here is brilliant, plus (on a less important point) I like the fact that “a little old song that I want to hear” echoes “my favorite song” in “Heaven.”

4)    Everyone Says ‘Hi’  DAVID BOWIE (2002)

David Bowie, HeathenThis song and the next one both include the line that gives the mix its title. Both songs find a twinge of melancholy in the clichéd, well-meaning phrase — conveying the good wishes of those who are not here, bringing their absence into the present moment. So, the link to “Little Vacation” is the likelihood of using this very phrase while on vacation, and the sense, when traveling, of enjoying where you are but missing those who are not with you. The Bowie song addresses someone who has not just taken “a big trip,” but “moved away.” It’s not clear if the addressee is even among the living (another link to the previous two songs). The final line of the first verse is “Happened oh, so quietly, / they say” which could also be used to describe someone’s death. That said, the person could simply have moved away, left no forwarding address. She or he could be someone Bowie’s narrator will never see again. Philip Nel and Shahid Hoda, c. Sept 1987I have a friend like that. I last saw him in May 1989. He disappeared later that year, or perhaps it was early the following year. After making some inquiries, I learned why. So, Shahid, if you happen upon this blog post, I hope you are well. Please know that your old friends still think of you. Everyone says “Hi.”

5)    To All My Friends  JOSH JOPLIN (2005)

Josh Joplin, JaywalkerBeyond including the title line, this track also evokes this vocal lineage that begins with David Bowie, and continues through his spiritual offspring, the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler (who sounds a bit like Bowie), and then Josh Joplin (whose voice resembles Butler’s — even though Joplin’s song “Happy at Last” alleges “I sound like Michael Stipe”). As the “s” in the title indicates, this song addresses many friends who have passed out of Joplin’s life. The line “winter of our unpaid rent” (nice Richard III allusion, Joplin!) might refer to a former lover, or at least a roommate; “summer of unrequited love” suggests a hoped-for relationship; “the best minds of my troubled youth” (Allen Ginsberg allusion!) evokes the many musicians that Joplin may know. One could make a full mix just focusing on songs for missed friends — Neil Young’s “One of These Days” would of course be included, though isn’t on this mix because I’ve used it before.  So, instead,…

6)    Friend of Mine  STEVE MARTIN & EDIE BRICKELL (2013)

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come for YouAnother song about friendship, but this time to someone who is still here. Like Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” (another great song for a friendship mix!), this collaboration between Steve Martin & Edie Brickell talks about friends who help you survive: “When everybody lets me down / You lift me up again.” I also concur with the lyric’s thesis about life more generally: “The world is such a crazy place, / Full of joy and pain.” Yes. Life is beautiful and sad. This past week’s news has delivered much more of the sad, the painful, the heartbreaking….

7)    All Our Endless Love  THE BIRD AND THE BEE feat. MATT BERNINGER (2014)

Endless Love: Original Motion Picture SoundtrackAddressing not only friendship but love, this song continues the emotional resonance of the previous one, but moves directly into the intensity and fragility of intimate relationships. Amidst a deep bond, this one may also be coming apart. “I am falling to the rhythm of all your endless love” points both to falling-in-love expressed in the first verse (“I couldn’t breathe without you there”) but also to a falling-out-of-love, expressed in such lines as “Is this really ending?”


That’s the first third of the mix, and more than enough to convey the links between songs.

4. Variety.  Ideally (and especially on an uptempo mix), two adjacent songs won’t be too similar in style, though this isn’t an ironclad rule.  A link between songs (see no. 3) can be purely sonic.  In general, I think of the range as “from punk to show tunes,” by which I mean you can include swing, heavy metal, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, dance, folk, funk, reggae, R&B, trip-hop, novelty records, garage rock, new wave, blues, a cappella, jazz, J-pop, 1960s Italian film soundtrack music, gospel, and, yeah, punk and show tunes.  For an uptempo mix, all of these would need to be uptempo. For the quiet mixes, you’ll likely have more a cappella, classical, jazz (and no metal). Similarly, the midtempo mixes (such as the example given in no. 3) tend to have a narrower range (no metal there either…).

5. The mixes tend to be present-centered, but are not only present-centered. So, most songs are relatively current — from the current year or the past decade.  But it would be very rare to focus only on recent music. Generally, the timespan is the 1930s to the present, though occasionally there’ll be something from the 1920s or earlier. The mix above includes several more recent recordings of songs from earlier periods (“Pennies from Heaven,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Pure Imagination”), though I often use earlier versions.

6. Since mixes get played more than once, I try to pick songs that bear repeated listens.  I realize that this one depends on taste. Playing your favorite song once again (as in song no. 2 on the above mix) can be heaven… or can be hell.

7. I favor shorter songs over longer ones. If there is a long song, it’s likely to go last. This is something of a corollary to point nos. 6 (I don’t want to wear down the listener with a song that goes on and on) and 4 (shorter songs allow for more variety).

8. Beginnings: I try to start a mix with a good kick-off song — “a corker,” as Nick Hornby says. Sometimes, I will use a short spoken-word piece (dialogue from an old film or a musical, say).

Fiona Apple, Pure Imagination - Single9. Endings: I might slow it down a little at the end or I might not.  This can also be a place for spoken-word pieces, or perhaps the concluding music to a film. For the mix excerpted in no. 3, I conclude with Fiona Apple’s cover of “Pure Imagination” because both Gene Wilder’s original recording and especially her version bring to the fore some dissonance that undercuts the ostensibly optimistic lyric. Also, if you’re playing a CD in a car, it’s likely to repeat. Moving from “Pure Imagination” back to “Pennies from Heaven” works well. Both songs dream of something better, but they are just that — dreams.

10. Use all of the space. A CD holds one hour, 19 minutes, and 45 seconds. I try to come as close as I can to filling the whole thing. This became part of my criteria back in the days of cassette tapes: blank space at the end of a side (especially side A) was annoying because then you’d have to fast-forward to the end. Ideally, you’d pick a song that would conclude roughly as the cassette tape did. Sometimes, I would fade out a song slightly early or (to fill space) add a very short song just so that there’d be no (or very little) silence at the end.

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)11. Good taste, which is nearly impossible to define. My mix-making guidelines ultimately rest upon my own taste, for which I direct you to this blog post on Carl Wilson’s excellent Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (and no, this isn’t Beach Boy Carl Wilson; it’s Canadian music journalist Carl Wilson).  That post is the most fully articulated expression of whatever the heck my taste is.

If I were to try to further clarify that, I’d note that I’m a big fan of cover tunes in general.  So, it’s unusual to have a mix that lacks a cover.  My favorite cover artists are Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox (if you’ve yet to discover them, stop reading this blog post now, go to YouTube, and start listening) and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (superlative punk covers).

In addition to punk, I love ’60s soul and R&B (Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, the Supremes), & the great American songbook (Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Harburg, Arlen, Fields and Kern, Warren and Dubin, etc.).

Musically, I came of age in the 1980s; so, the styles of that era have a strong hold on my musical imagination. This is likely one reason why the Wombats are one of my favorite contemporary pop groups: tight hooks, surprising lyrics (“Please allow me to be your anti-depressant. / I am prescribed as freely as any decongestant”).  I recommend their first two albums, and (I expect) the third, once it comes out, later this year!

As the quoted lyric indicates, I like words: I appreciate a sense of humor, an unusual turn of phrase, etc. Hence, my affection for novelty records. I also like a cappella. I’m a sucker for a good hook. I like pop, but I like it best when it’s a little off-kilter — an uptempo song on a melancholy subject, a downbeat cover of a happy song, an unusual or incisive lyric, a haunting melody.

My favorite band is They Might Be Giants.  Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of the National.  Other favorite artists: Fats Waller, the Clash, Ella Fitzgerald, Hem, Chet Baker, Leonard Cohen, Moxy Früvous, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Warren Zevon, Billie Holiday, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Dessa (A Badly Broken Code is one of my desert island discs), Richard Goode (love his recording of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas).

Though I could ramble on and on about taste (indeed, I already have…), this post has run its course. Yes, it’s a highly subjective set of criteria for assembling a mix, but there is an internal logic to it, a sensibility (however idiosyncratic) that makes it all work. If you have strong opinions (and music fans tend to), please do feel free to express them, below.

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Where Is My Mind?: The National’s Influences

The National. Photo by Diedre O'Callaghan.

This mix goes out to fans of the National. Influences cited are mostly sourced, but partly speculative. That is, most of the selections here come from bands identified by National members (usually Matt Berninger) as an influence, but some simply sound to me like influences. So, of course, feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments, below.

Also, since this is a mix (as opposed to just a playlist), I’ve chosen selections from each band that work together, in sequence, as a mix. For any who may be curious, I will post my rules for mix-making in a couple of days. Anyway. Here are… some of the National’s influences.

1)     Love Will Tear Us Apart  JOY DIVISION (1980)                              3:26

The documentary Mistaken for Strangers briefly shows Matt Berninger singing along to this song. Of comparisons to Joy Division, Berninger has said, “I think a lot of that is the range that I sing in is similar to Ian Curtis. And I get a lot of Nick Cave. I think it’s mostly because of the vocal range that we get that. Definitely Joy Division, I know Bryan our drummer, from a drumming perspective, that’s been a big influence on him.”  (Incidentally, I debated putting “Transmission” on, but this song seemed a better way to launch the mix….)

2)     How Soon Is Now?  THE SMITHS (1985)                                       6:46

Asked by Cheryl Cheng in 2007, “Who are some of your early inspirations?” Berninger responded, “The bands that I first really started falling in love with were The Smiths, Violent Femmes, Tom Waits, Nick Cave…”

3)     Where Is My Mind?  PIXIES (1988)                                                  3:53

On YouTube, there’s footage of Berninger singing the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” at a karaoke bar:

4)     New Drink for the Old Drunk  CROOKED FINGERS (2000)          3:53

In his Rolling Stone “Top Tearjerkers” playlist, Berninger includes Crooked Fingers’ “Sad Love.”

5)     Jockey Full of Bourbon  TOM WAITS (1985)                                 2:47

In that same playlist, he includes Waits’ “Jersey Girl.” There are many Waits songs I could have included on this mix, but “Jockey Full of Bourbon” is my favorite and it fit well at this point in the mix.

6)     A Shot In The Arm  WILCO (1999)                                                    4:20

I’ve never heard any member of the National cite Wilco as an influence, but I hear echoes of Wilco circa Summer Teeth (1999) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) — the records just before the band’s critically lauded pretentious mess, A Ghost Is Born (or, as I call it, Wilco Lays an Egg).

7)     Whisper  MORPHINE (1995)                                                              3:29

I’ve never heard members of the National mention Morphine, but they’re the most sonically similar group I know. In my iTunes, one playlist is “National & Morphine.”

8)     Sweet Jane  THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (1970)                    4:09

It’s more likely that the Velvets influenced the bands that influenced the National — i.e., we’re hearing their influence at one remove. Not incidentally, Lou Reed and Berninger both appear on Booker T. Jones’ The Road from Memphis (2011).

9)     Just Like Honey  THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN (1985)                 3:03

The Jesus and Mary Chain’s thick wall of distorted guitars is obviously a much bigger influence on the Raveonettes, but I’d be surprised if this band wasn’t somewhere among the National’s influences.

10)   Pretty in Pink  THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS (1981)                          4:00

The National cover “Pretty in Pink” on The Daytrotter Sessions (2007). Also: listen to the lyrics. It’s a much darker and more interesting song than its association with the Molly Ringwald film would lead you to believe. The National’s cover brings out the song’s sad narrative quite well — “All of her lovers all talk of her notes, / and the flowers that they never sent. / Wasn’t she easy? And isn’t she pretty in pink.”

11)   Flavor of the Month  THE POSIES (1993)                                      2:36

I have a vague notion that members of the National have cited the Posies as an influence, but I can’t find my source.

12)   Last Nite  THE STROKES (2001)                                                      3:20

Matt Berninger: “The Strokes have influenced more bands in the last ten years than even the artists I mentioned [Waits, Cave, Nirvana, Smiths] in all 25 years.”

13)   Uptown Again  THE AFGHAN WHIGS (1998)                                  3:11

Afghan Whigs, 1965Berninger is an avowed Afghan Whigs fan. Of Greg Dulli (the Whigs’ lead singer & main songwriter), Berninger says “Dulli just had a way of being so dark and almost brutal in some of his observations of himself and his dark side of romance, but he was able to articulate it in unbelievably powerful ways. There are people like that, who happily dig into the very uncomfortable personal exposure in a way. It’s not wallowing. It’s some sort of cathartic recognition of the sad and dark sides of our minds and hearts. I think it’s a healthy way to deal with that stuff.”

14)   First We Take Manhattan  R.E.M. (1991)                                        6:05

Although this is R.E.M. covering a Leonard Cohen song, I see an affinity between R.E.M.’s original work and the National’s. They’re both rock bands with a vocalist & lyricist who writes suggestive but elliptical lyrics. They’re also willing to develop more sophisticated arrangements, bringing in strings & piano.

15)   False Alarm  SLOAN (2003)                                                             3:48

Sloan’s songs are typically more power pop than the National’s (and I’ve not seen the National cite Sloan as an influence), but the elements of longing (“Always looking for reasons to walk on your street”) secure it a place on the mix. In sum, this is Sloan at their most National-esque, and (arguably) not as strong a choice as the other songs on this mix.

16)   Game of Pricks  GUIDED BY VOICES (1995)                                2:15

Berninger listens to Guided by Voices, and put “Learning to Hunt” on the aforementioned Rolling Stone playlist.

17)   I Can’t Forget  LEONARD COHEN (1988)                                      4:32

In September 2011, Berninger told The Phoenix’s Michael Christopher, “when I was in high school I became obsessed with Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.”

18)   Traveling Light  TINDERSTICKS & CARLA TORGERSON (1995)       4:50

I’m not sure whether the National considers Tindersticks an influence, but many reviews make the comparison between the two bands. With their baritone vocals and fondness for orchestral arrangements, it’s easy to see why.

19)   Love Letter  NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS (2001)                       4:09

Asked about his influences, the first two that Matt Berninger mentions tend to be Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

20)   Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten  DENNIS RUSSELL DAVIES: STUTTGART CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (1984)                        5:08

Dennis Russell Davies: Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Arvo Pärt: Tabula RasaThis mix has placed too much emphasis on Berninger. This last song highlights the band’s guitarist, Bryce Dessner, who is also a classical composer. I’m convinced that he and his brother Arron Dessner’s work in non-rock music are key to the National’s sound, bringing in atypical rhythms and arrangements. Bryce Dessner has worked with and performed the works of minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich. I don’t know what he thinks of fellow minimalist Arvo Pärt, but this track seemed an apt way to conclude.

There are many other bands who might (and perhaps should) have been included on this speculative compilation, including Nirvana, Radiohead, and Depeche Mode. (Some songs cut from earlier versions of this mix: “Lithium,” “Come As You Are,” “No Apologies,” “No Surprises,” “High and Dry,” “Policy of Truth,” “Enjoy the Silence.”) But to make this collection work as a mix (and one that would fit on a single CD), I had to cut some things.

Credits: Photo of the National by Diedre O’Callaghan, taken from “The National on World Cafe” (WXPN).

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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: The Mixes

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineBecause every revolution needs a soundtrack, I assembled a couple of CDs of songs for the drive to and from Topeka, for yesterday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. True, the drive is not in fact that long (only an hour each way), but creating playlists is a form of thinking. It’s something I do for fun. Really.

There are only YouTube recordings below. Nearly all of these songs are commercially available — i.e., you can buy individual tracks via iTunes. (I think only the Steinski track at the very end is not on iTunes.  And the Public Enemy recording that opens the mix is not available as an individual track: you need to purchase the entire Do the Right Thing soundtrack.)


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #1

1)     Fight the Power (Soundtrack Version)  PUBLIC ENEMY (1989)                  5:23

I used the version from the Do the Right Thing Soundtrack, which includes Take 6′s intro (of the fictional radio station’s call letters).

2)     Know Your Rights  THE CLASH (1982)                                                3:42

From the Clash’s final studio album, Combat Rock. (No one counts the later Cut the Crap — not even the Calash.) “You have the right to free speech… as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!”

3)     1984  DAVID BOWIE (1974)                                                             3:27

From Diamond Dogs, which contains a number of songs written for an aborted stage musical of 1984.

4)     Exhuming McCarthy  R.E.M. (1987)                                                       3:22

This song appears on Document, and includes an audio clip from Joseph N. Welch’s famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” from the Army-McCarthy hearings.

5)     There Is No Time  LOU REED (1989)                                                 3:47

Lou Reed gets angry, on New York.

6)     Get Up, Stand Up  BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS (1973)                      3:19

7)     You Won’t Stand Alone (ska-sized)  D.O.A. (2004)                                  2:06

8)     Stand  SLY & THE FAMILY STONE (1969)                                            3:07

9)     Power to the People  CURTIS MAYFIELD (1974)                                  3:29

This is the demo version. I used the album version (from Sweet Exorcist).

10)   People Have the Power  PATTI SMITH (1988)                                      5:10

11)   Give the People What They Want  THE O’JAYS (1975)                           4:11

12)   The Stone (Revolution!)  RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR (2012)            3:10

13)   Revolution  NINA SIMONE (1969)                                                      4:41

One of the greatest Beatles covers. Indeed, “cover” is the wrong word. Simone transforms Lennon’s cynical anti-revolutionary song into a genuine call for revolution.

14)   I Fought the Law  DEAD KENNEDYS (1984)                                        2:19

In addition to changing the lyrics to “I fought the law / And I won,” the Dead Kennedys also include such new lyrics as: “The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends. / That’s how this country’s run” and “You can get away with murder if you’ve got a badge.”

15)   All You Fascists  BILLY BRAGG & WILCO (2000)                                  2:43

Woody Gurthrie’s lyrics, with Bragg’s vocals and Wilco’s music. Here’s a version with Billy Bragg playing the song on his own.

16)   This Land Is Your Land  SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS (2004)      4:37

Magnificent soul arrangement of the Woody Gurthrie classic. Here’s an acoustic version (though I put the original album version on the mix, of course).

17)   Woody Guthrie  ALABAMA 3 (2002)                                                  4:18

18)   People Gotta Be Free  KEB’ MO’ (2004)                                               3:46

Great cover of the Rascals’ original. I couldn’t find Keb’ Mo’s version on YouTube; so, here are the Rascals:

19)   International  JIM’S BIG EGO (2008)                                                    3:37

20)   World Upside Down  JIMMY CLIFF (2012)                                           3:10

21)   Talking Union  THE ALMANAC SINGERS (1941)                                  3:06

Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell — the Almanac Singers — recorded this song for their second record, Talking Union (1941; re-released with additional songs, 1955).  Written by Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, the song uses a “talking blues” style later adopted by Bob Dylan.

22)   Redemption Song  JOE STRUMMER & THE MESCALEROS (2003)           3:28

From his final solo record, the Clash’s Joe Strummer covers Bob Marley.

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #2

1)     The Preamble  LYNN AHRENS (1976)                                                 3:00

From Schoolhouse Rock!

2)     We the People  THE STAPLE SINGERS (1972)                                      3:52

Here’s a performance from Soul Train.

And here’s an excerpt from a promotional film.

3)     Fight the Power  BARENAKED LADIES (1993)                                     4:06

Barenaked Ladies cover Public Enemy! Yes, you read that correctly. It’s actually a great cover. Despite the occasionally goofy turn (“Nutty Buddy was a hero to most”?), I think they otherwise are quite in earnest. In some ways, you might see this as an antecedent to BNL’s “Fun and Games,” one of the most trenchant musical critiques of the Bush administration.

Recorded for Gordon, the cover appears on (of all places) the Coneheads soundtrack. Here are BNL performing it live, in 2009.

4)     American Idiot  GREEN DAY (2004)                                                    2:54

5)     My Favorite Mutiny  THE COUP feat. BLACK THOUGHT and TALIB KWELI (2006)                                                                                  4:36

Here’s the full version.

And here’s an excerpt from a live performance.

6)     I Predict a Riot  KAISER CHIEFS (2005)                                               3:53

7)     Harder Than You Think  PUBLIC ENEMY (2007)                                   4:10

8)     Seven Nation Army  THE WHITE STRIPES (2003)                                 3:52

9)     I Won’t Back Down  TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS (1989)        2:57

10)   You Haven’t Done Nothin’  STEVIE WONDER (1974)                           3:29

11)   Low Light Low Life  P.O.S. feat. DESSA (2009)                                      3:15

12)   Clampdown  THE CLASH (1979)                                                         3:52

“We will teach our twisted speech / To the young believers.” Ah, so many great lyrics in this one, from London Calling, which is (to my mind) the best Clash record.  “Let fury have the hour. / Anger can be power, / If you know that you can use it.”

13)   Freedom  JURASSIC 5 (2002)                                                             3:19

14)   This Little Light  MAVIS STAPLES (2007)                                              3:23

This appears on We’ll Never Turn Back, which — along with London Calling (see track 11, above) is one of my Desert Island Discs.  Here’s a live recording.

15)   Freedom  THE ISLEY BROTHERS (1970)                                             3:39

16)   I Should Be Allowed to Think  THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1994)            3:08

Begins by quoting Ginsburg’s “Howl.”

17)   Express Yourself  CHARLES WRIGHT & THE WATTS 103RD RHYTHM BAND (1972)     3:52

18)   Try This at Home  FRANK TURNER (2012)                                         1:53

19)   Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)  SHAD (2013)                                          3:32

Great song about education, immigration, family, and much more.

20)   Motion Movement  BLUE SCHOLARS (2004)                                       3:47

21)   You Can Get It If You Really Want It  DESMOND DEKKER (1970)         2:40

22)   You Get What You Give  NEW RADICALS (1998)                                5:02

23)   Silent Partner (Peace Out)  STEINSKI (2006)                                         0:52

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline

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I Love the ’80s: Dystopia, Nostalgia, and Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player OneKansas State University’s “K-State First” asked me to talk to undergraduates about Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011), this year’s “First Book,” at a “Beyond the Classroom” event.  So, this past Tuesday (Oct. 1st), I did.  In case it may be of interest to others, I’m posting my (admittedly somewhat hastily assembled) talk here, along with some of the images and videos.

I. Dystopia

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a dystopian novel.  Can a dystopian novel be nostalgic?

For those unfamiliar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopiaUtopia comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name, and it imagines an ideal society.  This Utopia is the ideal republic towards which we should all strive.  And, as such, it offers a commentary on what’s wrong with society — it points to what should be improved or changed. How can we make society better?

M.T. Anderson, FeedDystopia has that same improving impulse, that same wish to comment critically on contemporary society, but it goes about delivering that message by imagining the opposite of an ideal society.  A dystopia is a thought experiment that isolates and exaggerates certain social trends in order to highlight their most negative qualities. The most famous examples are probably George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. In other words, a dystopia offers a critique of society by imaginatively extending the logic of already extant tendencies. Margaret Atwood goes after right-wing attacks on women’s rights in the 1980s, and imagines a modern America where women are valued primarily for their ability to give birth. M.T. Anderson imagines a world where you’re always on-line because you’ve had the feed implanted in your brain; this changes our ability to think, to have complex thoughts. His characters are constantly bombarded with information, commercials, entertainment… and enjoy that… but get precious little time to actually think.

utopia vs. dystopia

A dystopia is a dark place.  You don’t want to live there.  You want to change your society so you don’t have to live there.

Reagan: Government is the problem.Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One presents a dystopian future, in which the widening gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else — a trend which begins in the 1980s, and has continued since then — has grown so wide that the U.S. is now a Third-World country.  In this world, neglected infrastructure, underfunded schools, social services have continued their decline.  This trend also begins in the 1980s, as President Reagan and his “government is the problem” acolytes start going after spending on infrastructure, schools, and other social services. It’s going on right now, actually, as the allegedly “conservative” Republican Party has decided that it’s better to shut down the government than allow more people to access health care.  Relaxing laws that regulate corporations — another ’80s phenomenon that has continued under presidents from both parties — has given the companies in Cline’s world much more power, so much power that instead of just enslaving people in other countries, they can enslave them in this one.  You don’t want to live in Cline’s vision of the future.

II. Nostalgia

Or do you?  Cline’s novel also evinces a deep nostalgia for the same period in which these trends begin: the 1980s.

Zaxxon

The videogames.

Family Ties

The television shows.

Duran Duran

The music.

The Breakfast Club

The John Hughes movies.

Of James Halliday, whose will initiates the contest that our protagonist pursues, Cline’s narrator tells us: “He had an extreme fixation on the 1980s” and “Halliday seemed to expect everyone to share his obsessions” (55).  To win the contest that grants the lucky winner control of Halliday’s corporation — the one that created and manages the OASIS, an on-line virtual reality where everyone spends most of their time — contestants must become experts in 1980s trivia.

I turned 11 in 1980.  Ernest Cline turned 8 in 1980.  James Halliday turned 7 in 1980.  (I figured this out because Wade’s name appears on the high-score chart in 2045, “After five long years” of no one solving the contest, initiated at Halliday’s death, … and Halliday died at age 67.)  Anyway.  My point is that Cline, Halliday, and myself are contemporaries.  We’re all members of the 1980s generation.

And, as a member of that generation, I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgia.

Especially the music. 1983 was the zenith of my pop-music consciousness. Name a song released that year, and I’ll tell you who the artist was and I can probably describe the video.

I then showed the students excerpts from a few 1980s music videos. For the most part, they laughed.

Billy Idol‘s “Rebel Yell” was a hit in 1983.  (It’s referenced on p. 184.)

They laughed the loudest at this, especially at Mr. Idol’s fist-pumping.

Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” was a no. 3 pop hit in 1982.  (See p. 180.)

To my surprise, some students recognized this one.

And, yes, before there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there was “Rock Me Amadeus,” a number one hit in 1985. Sung in German, by the Austrian performer Falco. (On p. 200.)

To my surprise, “Rock Me Amadeus” was less familiar to them.  Or so it seemed from their reaction.

They Might Be Giants‘ “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986) was not a big hit, but the book quotes this line from the song: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (199). Also, they’re my favorite band. So, indulge me for a moment, won’t you?

Thanks.  The band’s biggest hits were probably on their 1990 record Flood: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They would go on to sing “Boss of Me,” the theme to Malcolm in the Middle.

OK.  So.  That was fun.  For me, anyway.

III. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 1

So. What do we do with the novel’s nostalgia?  Here are two possible readings.

One is that a typical dystopian novel — or film, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is referenced in Ready Player One — isn’t nostalgic.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)

One reading, then, is to argue that nostalgia is the opposite of dystopia.  It’s a looking backwards with very selective memory.  You’re remembering the past’s greatest hits — or the parts that you like the best.  You remember fondly weird trashy pop from the 1980s, primitive computing technology, The Breakfast Club, Family Ties, and think: ah, a simpler time.  A happier time.

Perhaps you, who are at least two decades younger than I am, look back fondly on the pop hits of 2003: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  I don’t know.

So, if we pursue this reading of nostalgia, we might remember what Laine Nooney said in her talk here last Friday, which was that Ready Player One has a vision of the 1980s “in which the popular was never political.”

The problem is that the actual 1980s popular culture was political.

Family Ties, a television show mentioned in the novel (14), starred Michael J. Fox as conservative teen-ager Alex P. Keaton in a liberal family.  It presented him sympathetically, and Fox is a likable actor, but the tension between liberal parents and conservative son was the main source of that show’s humor.  In this sense, it was a political television show.

In the world of popular music there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star hit single from 1984, that raised money for famine relief in Ethopia.

(I didn’t actually show this video; I’m just putting it here for you. And yes, lines like “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” or even the notion that the people of Africa should celebrate Christmas are, at best, problematic.)

USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” an album and single from 1985 also for famine relief in Africa.

(I didn’t show this one either.)

That same year also brought us Live Aid, an all-star concert in Philadelphia and London, broadcast live on MTV.  And then there were the Farm Aid concerts, the first of which was in 1985.  And the best all-star “benefit single” to come out of that period was Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” (1985) — masterminded by Little Steven, a.k.a. Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s band, though you may also know him from The Sopranos).

(I did show some of this video… because it’s quite an effective piece of agitprop.  And the song is great.  RUN-DMC! Lou Reed!  Bruce Springsteen!  Kurtis Blow!  U2!  Miles Davis!  Bob Dylan!  Joey Ramone!  Bonnie Raitt!)

There was also Nena’s “Red Balloons” (1983), a pop hit about stray balloons that accidentally trigger a nuclear war. The song hit number one across Europe, and number two in the U.S.  Originally recorded in German.

(I showed some of this one, too.)

And those are just the ones that got the most publicity.  There’s also:

  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from his third album (1980) — the song that inspired Van Zandt to write “Sun City.”
  • The Clash, “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock (1982).
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1982)
  • Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” (1988)
  • The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

While we’re on the subject, who was the best-selling artist of the 1980s?  Indeed, whose album was the best-selling record of the 1980s?  And is the best-selling album, period?

At first, no one responded.  After some encouragement, one student said, “Well, I would say Michael Jackson. Thriller.” 

Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

Right!  Michael Jackson.  Thriller (1982) had an unprecedented 7 top-10 singles: “Beat It” (featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar), “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl is Mine” (featuring Paul McCartney), “Thriller” (with guest vocal by Vincent Price).  It won eight Grammy Awards in 1984.  It’s sold about 30 million copies in the US, and another 20 million abroad.  Today, it still sells 130,000 a year.

Michael Jackson is missing from the novel.  As are a lot of artists of color.  Where’s Prince?  Purple Rain was huge.  “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were both top-10 singles.  And then there’s 1999, which included the title song and “Little Red Corvette.”  Where’s Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine?  Her Primitive Love had three top-10 hits in 1985, and her 1987 record Let It Loose had even more, including “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”  For that matter, where’s the ground-breaking collaboration and hit single from RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”?

Where is hip-hop in general?  For that matter, where is Madonna?

So, one reading of the book’s nostalgia, then, is that’s regressive.  It’s nostalgia for a very particular, apolitical, very white culture.  It’s a 1980s without politics.

IV. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 2

But here’s another reading of nostalgia — reading that’s progressive instead of regressive.  It’s also possible to look back to another time in order to imagine a better future.  For example, you might write about the 1930s — in which unions in the U.S. won workers a 40-hour work week and a living wage — in order to remind people of the power of organizing.

So, in Ready Player One, we might argue, the book expresses a longing for a particular kind of gaming experience, a particular kind of technology, a technology that embraces slowness and collaboration.

Zork I

One of the keys to the puzzle in this book is the text-only adventure game Zork.  As a 13-year-old, I and my friends played Zork on an Apple IIe. We also drew elaborate maps for Zork.  And Zork II, and Zork III.  We solved them all, working together.

That was slow, but so was the technology itself.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, with cassette

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (1977-1981)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984).

Apple IIe

The Apple IIe.

Back in 1980, when my parents bought our family’s first computer (a TRS-80), we would buy a book of programs (in BASIC), type them in, save them to a cassette tape, and then load them in when we wanted to play them.  Loading a program could take up to half an hour!  The 8-inch floppy disk was a huge leap forward in data retrieval technology.

Slowness gives you time to think, time to reflect on what you’re doing. It is not about instant gratification, but about rewards built up over time. We played these games off and on for weeks, months — for a long time.

I’ve found Zork via Frotz, a free app for the iPad and iPhone.  Let’s play it.  I’ll post the screen up here, read it to you, and you tell me what you want to do.

We played Zork.  Students discussed what they wanted to do, and called out sentences for me to type in. Here are a couple of screenshots.

Zork: screenshot (via Frotz)

 

Zork: another screenshot (via Frotz)

They laughed, and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I couldn’t have predicted it, but playing Zork was definitely the highlight of my presentation.  After we’d played for about 10 minutes, I then asked:

Have any of you ever played a text-based computer game before?

No one had. So, I asked:

What was it like?  How does the experience differ from a contemporary videogame?

One student told me that it was indeed, much slower-paced, and very unlike the typical first-person shooter games — though that wasn’t the precise term he used.

I ask, in part, because I played video games between 1980 and 1984.  Apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds, I have not played video games since that period.  And so I’m wondering if my reading of a video game like Zork — that it invites slowness and collaboration — is correct.

Perhaps they were just being polite, but students told me that the experience was indeed much as I’d described it.

Zork is, in a sense, what would also be called “interactive fiction” — something else that emerged in the 1980s, with novels like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), which you bought on a disk, ran the program, and then decided which paths of the narrative you wanted to take.

To conclude, I posed the following questions for them to discuss.

V. Concluding Questions

Ready Player One: Questions

As I told them, that last question was cribbed from Laine Nooney’s talk. We had a lively discussion, and then as we packed up, I played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video as our concluding music.

And that’s it!

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State Songs

State SongsLooking for a mix that has one song for each of the 50 U.S. states?  This isn’t it.  Nor are any of these official state songs. (Or, at least, I don’t think they are.)

Instead, this mix has 24 songs (one each for 23 states, plus one for DC), and some of them refer to multiple states. I’m well aware that many states are missing, and that I’ve skipped some obvious songs — Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” the B-52s’ “Private Idaho,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” to name but three.  Similarly, one could make several mixes worth of songs devoted to New York alone, but I’ve stuck to one song per state.  Finally, I’ve limited the length to only what would fit on a single CD.

So here’s one hour and nineteen minutes of music that references U.S. states. Some songs celebrate, others criticize, and still others merely allude to the state in question. Enjoy!

1) Rhode Island Is Famous for You  Erin McKeown (2006)      2:46

Written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz for the musical Inside U.S.A. (1948), this song gained popular attention via Blossom Dearie’s 1960 recording. McKeown’s appears on her delightful album of covers, Sing You Sinners. Though I’ve included it for Rhode Island, it references 20 other states: Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, Louisiana, Montana, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Dakota (it doesn’t specify whether North or South).

2) I Like the Likes of You  Kate Baldwin (2009)      2:02

Composed by E. Y. Harburg and Vernon Duke for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1944, it only references Connecticut (and, more briefly, the Grand Canyon). I’ve always loved the way the song’s language evokes the giddiness of falling in love, and even finds the time to skewer love-song clichés (in the spoken section). And Kate Baldwin’s delivery is perfect.

3) B.O.S.T.O.N.  Bleu (2010)      3:48

This is here for Massachusetts (my home state), but it also name checks Wisconsin (Green Bay), Virginia, and California (L.A.).  Catchy power-pop celebration of Boston. I also included it in my “For Boston” mix, back in April.

4) Maine  John Linnell (1999)      2:07

I stole this mix’s title from John Linnell’s State Songs, the EP on which “Maine” appears.  If this sounds a bit like a They Might Be Giants song, that’s because Linnell is half of TMBGs.

5) Manhattan  Ella Fitzgerald & Buddy Bregman Orchestra (1956)      2:49

Composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for Garrick Gaieties (1925), this song takes you on a tour through New York’s best-known borough. Because there are so many songs about New York, it was challenging to choose just one song for this state. “Harlem Shuffle,” “42nd Street,” “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” “Boy from New York City,” “Theme from New York, New York,” “Take the A Train” are but a few others that were in the running.

6) I’m From New Jersey  John Gorka (1991)      3:08

On this mix, some songs celebrate and others criticize — except for this one, which does a little of both.  It appears on Gorka’s Jack’s Crows. Bonus: it also references Texas and Ohio.

7) Pennsylvania 6-5000  Glenn Miller (1940)      3:14

I like that this song doesn’t really say anything at all about Pennsylvania. It’s just a telephone exchange. The absurdity appeals to me. Also in the running for this state were Standard Fare’s “Philadelphia” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”

8) Delaware  Perry Como (1959)      2:19

Yes, the entire song is silly puns on state names. Believe it or not, this was a no. 22 pop hit in March of 1960.  In case you’re keeping track, the other states in this song are New Jersey, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, Minnesota, Oregon, Alaska, Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and Missouri.

9) Washington, D.C.  The Magnetic Fields (1999)      1:54

The nation’s capitol — which has no representation at the federal level — here gets celebrated with a rousing cheer and a snare drum. From 69 Love Songs.

10) Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina  Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa (1941)      2:43

I don’t know anything about the songwriters on this one. They’re identified as S. Skylar, A. Shaftel, B. Cannon. What else have they written? The song appears on Let Me Off Uptown!: Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa.

11) My City Was Gone  Pretenders (1982)      5:25

“I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone,” sings Chrissie Hynde, the composer of this song. It appears on the Pretenders’ classic record, Learning to Crawl.  Below, the 1995 incarnation of the group performs the song … in Ohio.

12) Michigan Militia  Moxy Früvous (1997)      3:18

The late, great Canadian quartet (active in the 1990s) satirizes a right-wing American paramilitary group which, according to Wikipedia, lasted from 1994 to 2000, and then was re-formed in 2009. I’m not sure what relationship the current Michigan Militia has to the one portrayed in this song. The song appears on Moxy Früvous’s Go to the Moon.  Below, a live performance from a 1998 telethon:

13) Down in Mississippi  Mavis Staples (2007)      4:58

Yes, that is Ladysmith Black Mambazo on backing vocals. A powerful song from one of the greatest albums ever recorded: We’ll Never Turn Back. It’s one of my desert island discs. Staples’ voice, Ry Cooder’s clean production, and many great musicians (including Cooder himself).  Below, a live performance from 2008:

14) Tennessee  Arrested Development (1992)      4:33

Written by Speech (who also is doing the main rap here), “Tennessee” was a top-10 single from the group’s successful debut album (which also featured “People Everyday” and “Mr. Wendal”). The song also references Georgia — in particular, Holly Springs, and Peachtree (a Street in Atlanta).  Below, the video:

15) Midnight Train to Georgia  Gladys Knight & The Pips (1973)      4:40

Another popular hit (number 1 on the pop charts), but from twenty years earlier. One of the few songs to be the subject of a Doonesbury strip:

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury, 28 July 1974

16) The Train from Kansas City  The Shangri-Las (1965)      3:21

Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, this song is on the mix to represent Missouri. There is also a smaller Kansas City in Kansas, but the larger, better-known city is in Missouri.

17) On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe  Judy Garland (1946)      3:10

Written by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren for the musical film The Harvey Girls, this song is here for Kansas (Atchison, Topeka), though I suppose you could add in New Mexico (Santa Fe).

18) Iowa Stubborn  Ensemble (1962)      2:00

“See you at the picnic. You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself.” Meredith Willson’s salute to his home state of Iowa, as performed in the opening minutes of The Music Man — one of the truly great musicals.  In addition to many memorable tunes, it’s just saturated with language. The lead role (Professor Harold Hill) has to be one of the most challenging in all of musical theatre.  Here’s Robert Preston, giving his definitive rendition in the 1962 film:

19) Oklahoma (Finale)  Gordon MacRae, Charlotte Greenwood, James Whitmore, Shirley Jones & Jay Flippen (1955)      3:08

From the musical (stage, 1943; film, 1955) by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.

20) That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas) Lyle Lovett (1996)      4:55

“But Texas wants you anyway.” From Lovett’s The Road to Ensenada.  Below, an early live version (from Austin City Limits, in the early 1990s):

21) Louisiana 1927  Randy Newman (1974)      2:58

From Newman’s Good Old Boys.

22) Sal Tlay Ka Siti  Nikki M. James (2011)      3:42

A (sort-of) tribute to Utah, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon.

23) Viva Las Vegas  The Grascals with Dolly Parton (2009)      3:15

Originally performed by Elvis Presley in the 1964 film of the same name, this song (written by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus) here gets a lively country treatment. Indeed, I like this version better than Elvis’s original.

24) California  Rufus Wainwright (2001)      3:24

“You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed.”  From Wainwright’s Poses.  Another state for which there are many songs we might use.  I like this one because it’s interested in the idea of California, but it’s also somewhat bemused by it.

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For Boston: A Mix

Boston Marathon logoBoston is the U.S. city that feels most like home to me. I grew up north of the city, in Lynnfield. Some of my family still live in the Boston area, though most are spread out around the globe. Indeed, I haven’t lived in Massachusetts in nearly three decades. But it’s still where I’m from.

In a city that embraces its diverse population (and their equally diverse opinions), the Boston Marathon is something (nearly) everyone agrees on.  Runners from all over the world compete.  Local TV broadcasts the race, which is always held on Patriots’ Day — a holiday commemorating the first battles of the American Revolution.  It’s celebrated in Massachusetts, but not nationally. I remember, as a kid, staying home from school, and watching the Boston Marathon on TV. It’s probably one reason that my mother, sister, and I have all run a marathon. (Or to be more accurate, my mother and I have each run one marathon; my sister has run over a dozen.) So, today’s bombing also hits close to home because I and my family know what it means to run a marathon.

As of this writing, I don’t know why some sociopath (or group of sociopaths) decided to bomb the city. I assume that the choice of Patriots’ Day was not an accident.

If you want to help,…

For information, I’ve found these useful:

Finally, here is a salute to Boston in song. It’s one of America’s great cities, and if you haven’t been there yet, please include it in future travel plans. As President Obama said today, “Boston is a tough and resilient town.” It and its people will recover from this.  So. Following is a mix of songs that either reference Boston or are by a band from Boston.

For Boston: A Mix

1. M.T.A. The Kingston Trio (1959)            3:16

A song that will tell you where the “Charlie card” (used for travel on the T, Massachusetts’ public transit system) got its name.

2. Yankee Doodle   Tex Ritter (1952)            1:28

An allusion to the city’s revolutionary past, performed by the father of John Ritter.

3. For Boston   Dropkick Murphys (2001)            1:33

Great Boston band, rousing Boston song.  Appears on the aptly titled Sing Loud, Sing Proud!

4. I’m Shipping Up to Boston   Boston Pops Orchestra (2009)            2:59

Also a Dropkick Murphys song (with lyrics by Woody Guthrie), but I didn’t want two songs by the same artist on the mix and I did want to include the Boston Pops.  So… here’s their version!  And, below, the Dropkick Murphys:

5. Massachusetts   Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa (1942)            3:16

“Boston, if you please, Massachusetts.”  From Let Me Off Uptown!

6. Dirty Water   Standells (1965)            2:49

“Love that dirty water, aw, Boston you’re my home” sing the Standells, a band from … Los Angeles.  From the great Nuggets collection.

7. B.O.S.T.O.N.   Bleu (2010)            3:48

A song about Boston from a singer-songwriter who studied at Boston’s Berklee School of Music.

8. Rock & Roll Band   Boston (1976)            3:00

“We were just another band out of Boston.” Tom Scholz (the creative force behind the band) is actually from Toledo, Ohio.  However, at the time of recording this album, he lived and worked in the Boston area.

9. Let’s Face It  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (1997)            2:33

The quintessential Boston band has a message for the haters: “Be racist, be sexist, be bigots, be sure: We won’t stand for your hatred.”  An appropriate song for the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage.  More recently, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he would not let the Chick-fil-A franchise (owned by anti-gay bigot Dan Cathy) open a restaurant in the city. He later acknowledged that he didn’t legally have the power to stop them, but his claim that “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail” resonated with those of us who support human rights.

10. Livin’ on the Edge  Aerosmith (1992)            6:20

Perhaps the most famous band from the city, Aerosmith are not famous for songs with a political message.  But, in this one, they have a caustic comment for bigots: “If you can tell a wise man by the color of his skin, then mister you’re a better man than I.”

11. The Fire Down Below   Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (1976)            4:28

To give credit where it’s due, this song — and a few others here — is inspired by a medley of snippets of songs that reference Boston which (Boston’s) WBCN used to play as part of their station identification.

12. Freeze-Frame   The J. Geils Band (1981)            3:58

No references to Boston in this song, but these guys were one of the great Boston bands. People know them for this album (Freeze-Frame), but Blow Your Face Out (1976) is one of the all-time great live albums.

13. Ladies of Cambridge   Vampire Weekend (2007)            2:39

Just across the Charles River from Boston, is Cambridge (though the band is from NYC).

14. Here Comes Your Man   Pixies (1989)            3:22

Another classic song from a Boston band.

15. Pretty In Pink   The Dresden Dolls (2006)            3:58

And still another, though covering a song by the (British) Psychedelic Furs.

16. Sweet Little Sixteen   Chuck Berry (1958)            3:02

“They’ll be rockin’ in Boston.”  From The Great Twenty-Eight.  One day soon, Boston will be rocking with joyous songs — like this one.

17. Hey Nineteen   Steely Dan (1980)            5:10

Another song that references Boston and to which the aforementioned WBCN medley uses.

18. Let’s Do It   Joan Jett & Paul Westerberg (1995)            2:23

In this punk cover of the Cole Porter classic, we learn that “In Boston, even beans do it.”

19.Roadrunner   The Modern Lovers (1976)            4:09

Founded by (Natick, Mass. native) Jonathan Richman, the Modern Lovers got their start in Boston.  In February, Massachusetts Representative Marty Walsh proposed this song as the official rock song of the state.

20. Good Times Roll  The Cars (1978)            3:48

With the knowledge that the good times will roll again, in Boston, here’s a (or the?) great new wave band from Boston — possibly the second best-known Boston band (after Aerosmith)?

21. Early to Bed   Morphine (1997)            2:58

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man or woman miss out on the nightlife.” Morphine were from Boston, and fronted by the late, great Mark Sandman.

22. Night Train   James Brown (1962)            3:35

The night train stops in Boston.

23. I’ve Been Everywhere  Johnny Cash (1996)            3:15

In this song, Mr. Johnny Cash goes to Boston (among many other places).

Incidentally, if you’re a music fan, when in the Boston area, check out Planet Records (144 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, Mass.).

Peace to all in Boston today. I know the city and its people will bounce back. We always do.

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Top 12 Covers of 2012

Top 12 covers of 2012Here are the best covers of 2012!  Well, they might be.  I haven’t kept up with music as well as I’d like to this year, and so I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones.  (I’m sure I can trust you to tell what I’ve missed, in the comments below.)  Though I recognize that there is no such thing as a cassette with 22 minutes per side, I’m nonetheless dividing this into the more uptempo side A and a quieter side B.


side A

1) Acapella The Futureheads (2012)            2:28

From the FutureheadsRant, a cover of Kellis. The album, incidentally, is entirely a capella, which I think earns the Futureheads some bonus points for coolness. Below: after mucking about for a minute, they perform this song live.

2) Judy Is a Punk The New Piccadillys (2012)             1:44

I have no idea who the New Piccadillys are, but this Beatle-esque cover of the Ramones is fantastic.  The group also created a Beatles-ish video to accompany the song.  Fun.

3) Feelin’ Alright Jackson 5 (1971)             3:13

This is the sole song here that was not recorded this year.  But it’s a great cover, and the box set on which it appears was released this year.   Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls features previously unreleased material from the Jackson 5.  Listening to it, I can’t help but think that the group could have had even more hits, had these songs been released at the time.  Great stuff.  This is their cover of Traffic.

4) You Be Illin’ Carolina Chocolate Drops (2012)             3:14

From the Carolina Chocolate Drops‘ Leaving Eden, a rootsy cover of the RUN-DMC classic.

5) Time Will Do the Talking Bettye LaVette (2012)             4:05

On her latest, Thankful n’ Thoughtful, Bettye LaVette performs a song from Patty Griffin’s debut album.  Tough to choose just one cover from this album.  I also considered the album opener, “Everything Is Broken,” but I already had a Dylan cover in the second half of the mix.

6) Right Back Where We Started From Chandler Travis Philharmonic (2012)           3:25

It was also tough to choose just one cover from this CD, Superhits of the Seventies: Original Hits, Today’s Stars, a 2012 WFMU fundraising exclusive assembled by Michael Shelley.  In addition to the Chandler Travis Philharmonic‘s merrily ragged cover of the Maxine Nightingale hit, the CD includes Yo La Tengo’s cover of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light,” the Dahlmanns’ cover of ABBA’s “Ring Ring,” and many other greats.  It’s only available to people who gave $75 or more to WFMU’s latest fundraising drive.  And you can still get it.  (If you can afford to, I’d recommend giving even more so that you can get more DJ premiums.  WFMU is the greatest freeform station in the nation, and is struggling to bounce back from Sandy.  It’s managed to get back on the air, but needs more money this year than it usually does.)


side B

7) Bloodbuzz Ohio Julia Stone (2012)           5:11

Lovely cover of the National by Julia Stone, from her album By the Horns.

8) Daydream Believer Renee & Jeremy (2012)            2:25

Beautiful, gentle cover of the Monkees’ hit — from Renee & Jeremy‘s A Little Love.

9) Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) Active Child (2012)            3:27

Active Child perform this cover of the Eurythmics’ classic at Australia’s Triple J radio station.  Here’s a video of the performance:

10) Landslide Antony (2012)            3:31

From A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac, in which Antony, the New Pornographers, Best Coast, MGMT, Lykke Li & others cover Fleetwood Mac songs.

11) Simple Twist of Fate Diana Krall (2012)           3:51

One of many fantastic songs from the 4-CD set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, a benefit album (for Amnesty International) featuring 128 covers of Dylan songs and Dylan himself performing “Chimes of Freedom.”

12) Video Games John Mayer (2012)              3:32

An instrumental take on the Lana Del Rey song.  In Mayer‘s rendition, it sounds like Ennio Morricone’s score for a 1960s western, or maybe incidental music for John Sayles’ Lone Star.


Related link:

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