Monday, June 28, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #72

They were a band passed down from older brother to younger as the years went on.  They began performing in garish clown make-up, doing painstakingly staged and costumed theatrical presentations of music from as far back as the end of the nineteenth century infused with a certain avant-garde edge that never left even as this troupe of musicians evolved from such arty conceit into a more traditional band.  They appeared on - and won - The Gong Show before achieving their later fame.  They gained a cult following among the New Wave scenesters thanks to early records being played on KROQ and early videos being aired in the fledgling days of MTV.  They achieved limited mainstream success as they shifted once again into writing for movie soundtracks.  And when the band finally dissolved, its leader - the younger brother - achieved his greatest fame.

Books could (and should!) be written about the long and twisting journey of the band best known to the world as Oingo Boingo.  I'll give you the short version:  Richard Elfman and his wife Marie created a musical theater/comedy revue in LA in 1972 which they christened The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.  A year later, Richard's younger brother, Danny Elfman, joined as the troupe's musical director.  The purpose of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo is best described in Richard's own words:
"My guiding musical vision for the group was 'nothing contemporary.' We faithfully re-created GREAT music that audiences could no longer hear live anymore – Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Django Rheinhardt, Josephine Baker, and did totally original, off-the-wall compositions by Danny, including numbers using an array of percussion instruments that he and saxophonist Leon Schneiderman created for the group." (source)
Within a few years, Richard's attention was beginning to turn to other projects, and he handed the reigns of The Mystic Knights completely over to Danny.  One of Richard's last perfromances with the troupe - indeed, one of the few extant recordings of the troupe in any form - was captured when they appeared as contestants on the The Gong Show in 1976:

With Danny now at the helm, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo transformed into a eight-person rock/ska/jazz/art band, creating music that at times virtually defied categorization. By 1980 they had a record deal, and, with name now truncated to the less unwieldy Oingo Boingo, they made their vinyl debut with the single "Only A Lad." DJs at influential radio station KROQ jumped on the disc and its follow-up, "Ain't This The Life?," and before too long Oingo Boingo was one of the most popular of the new music acts coming out of the West Coast.

Their first three albums were simply incredible: Only A Lad appeared in 1981, followed by Nothing To Fear in 1982 and Good For Your Soul in 1983; not a bad song can be found on any of them.  The band's history in musical theater made them perfect candidates for the music video format, and clips from each album ("Little Girls" from Lad, "Private Life" from Fear and "Nothing Bad Ever Happens To Me" from Soul) were very popular.

Oingo Boingo found their greatest success, however, in the movies.  Starting with "Goodbye Goodbye," which plays over the ending credits of 1982's Fast Times At Ridgemont High, a string of movies featured Oingo Boingo cuts in their soundtracks, culminating in perhaps their most well-known song, the theme from 1985's Weird Science.  (Also notable: a couple of their tracks wound up in 1984's Bachelor Party, and the cut "Dead Man's Party" from Back To School charted in 1986.)

Around this time, Danny Elfman began stepping out on his own, releasing a solo album and the single "Gratitude" in late 1984.  The band was moving toward a more polished, mainstream sound in order to better land those lucrative movie soundtrack spots; as a result, later albums paled in comparison to the first three essential LPs.  The band shortened its name once again, to simply "Boingo," as the 1990s approached, but the magic was gone.  Elfman was beginning to gain notice as a composer of entire film scores: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Good Will Hunting are among his works.  He has also become well known for his TV show themes, most notably composing the theme for The Simpsons.

Oingo Boingo called it a day in 1995, performing a farewell concert that Halloween.

Picking a favorite clip to feature as this week's NW4NW was not easy - as I say, there's not a bad song to be found among the first three albums.  If pressed, though, I have to go with their wonderful ode to paranoia and social anxiety, 1982's "Private Life." Enjoy!

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Monday, June 21, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #71

Just a short entry this week - busy world means writing time has been reduced. But, since today is officially the first day of summer, I chose a bit of classic summer-y New-Wavy fun to celebrate with.

Blotto came out of Albany, NY circa 1978, playing a goofy mix of demented humor, twangy surf guitar and reedy keyboards that fit right in with the New Wave aesthetic. Unlike most who tread the novelty song waters, Blotto's lyrics didn't always go for the obvious joke, choosing instead the sly references that sometimes took a few listens to catch. Their visual presentation was certainly over the top, though, which made the band perfect for the new music video landscape. In fact, this week's NW4NW video was played on MTV's very first day on the air, and became a favorite for the first few years of the channel's existence.

So, celebrate the summer with Blotto and their poolside classic, "I Wanna Be A Lifeguard!"

Monday, June 14, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #70

Since 1972, Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head, Phones Sportsman and Biggles Books had been making music in one aggregation or another.  In a musical landscape becoming evermore dominated by drawn-out ennui-inducing "progressive art bands" and paint-by-numbers pop disco, their sharp, stabbing guitars, disjointed drumming and occasional found-sound cacophony found precious few welcoming outlets.  Like so many other bands, they had to wait just a few years, until Punk Rock broke in the UK and suddenly those musicians who were trying something a bit askew finally found a receptive audience.

And so it was that in The Year of Punk, 1977, these art school chums released their first single under the name Swell Maps, "Read About Seymour." Bouncy, herky-jerky, and muddily recorded, "Seymour" was almost jazz-like, but with a hard edge and an urgency that fit right in with the safety-pin crowd.  Clocking in at just under two minutes and concluding in one of the great sonic collisions of all time, the single remains one of the classics of the era.

When their first album, A Trip to Marineville, appeared the following year, however, the safety-pin set didn't know what to make of it.  This wasn't a Punk Rock album! Sure, there were some slam/bang cuts, but there were also instrumentals and sonic collages.  The punks stopped listening - but another audience was hugely won over. Marineville went to the top of the UK's Independent charts, and became a hugely influential album for almost every band that would come out of the UK under the Post-Punk banner. Bands like Wire and The Fall simply wouldn't have existed without Swell Maps paving the way, as cuts like "Midget Submarines" attest.

A few non-album tracks would surface as singles around this time, most notably "Let's Build A Car," which Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore has cited as one of the earliest records he bought that heavily influenced his musical direction. The harshly shredded guitar that stabs through the melody line of "Car" would be a style nicked by Moore for nearly everything Sonic Youth ever recorded.

A second album, Jane from Occupied Europe, would follow in 1980 and kept much the same experimental format going.  Perhaps a bit noisier than its predecessor, but not without merit. Cuts like "Cake Shop Girl" and "The Helicopter Spies" are among the finest things the band recorded.

After Jane, though, the band split up, with key members going on to successful post-Maps careers: Nikki Sudden would form The Jacobites, Epic Soundtracks joined up with Crime & The City Solution, and Jowe Head did a stint with Television Personalities, not to mention each doing a few solo recordings as well.  Soundtracks and Sudden have both passed on, but the legacy they left behind is enormous.  Their two studio LPs and assorted singles are constantly being rediscovered by new generations of fans, and the bands who have followed the path they initially carved out of the landscape are innumerable.

This week's NW4NW entry celebrates Swell Maps with two clips.  First, the band's clip for "Let's Build A Car," and then a video recently made by a fan for their wonderful debut single, "Read About Seymour." Enjoy!

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Monday, June 7, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #69

I made the comment on Twitter this weekend that I often forget what a fantastic band Killing Joke is until one of their songs turns up randomly on my iPod, when I usually find myself turning the volume up a bit and saying to myself, "Damn, what a great song!"

Over the course of 14 studio albums, 7 live albums and 5 ep's, Killing Joke have created quite a catalog of music that almost defies categorization. Part industrial drone, part politically-driven Punk Rock, part keyboard-based dance music, part demi-metal, Killing Joke has influenced many other artists. Among those who cite Killing Joke among their muses are bands like Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Tool and Faith No More. Their songs have been covered by the likes of Metallica, Foo Fighters, and Fear Factory. Perhaps their biggest mainstream recognition came when Nirvana copped the riff from Killing Joke's "Eighties" for their "Come As You Are" single, resulting in a plagiarism suit that was dropped after Kurt Cobain's suicide; Cobain had long declared himself a fan of the band.

Originally comprised of Jaz Coleman (vocals), Paul Ferguson (drums), Geordie Walker (guitar) and Youth (born Martin Glover, bass), Killing Joke gained their first widespread exposure thanks to legendary UK DJ John Peel who began playing their records on his program back in 1980. Early albums like ...what's THIS for? and Revelations contained some of their heaviest noise, as the band attempted, as Coleman described it, to "define the exquisite beauty of the atomic age in terms of style, sound and form."

With the release of their fourth album, Fire Dances, the band steered towards a more melodic sound, although the insistent rhythms and loudly ringing guitars of their early work remained crucial to their music. Their next few albums (especially the utterly essential Night Time) saw the band enjoy a brief period as darlings of those college radio stations that had somewhat edgier playlists.

1988 saw Killing Joke nearly collapse under the weight of a legal battle with their record label over an album (Outside The Gate) that was never meant to be released. The recordings were demos that Coleman and Geordie had done for a proposed side project; their label released it under the Killing Joke name in an effort to recoup some of the costs of the sessions. Widely panned and truly well beneath the quality of their other work, the album caused many fans to fear the band had lost their magic.

Since then, Killing Joke has soldiered on in various forms. About two years ago, the original line up reunited, and are currently touring Europe, with new material ready to be released.

For this week's NW4NW entry, I am choosing two of my favorite Killing Joke tracks, "(Let's All Go To The) Fire Dances" and, of course, "Eighties." Damn, these are great songs!

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Thursday, June 3, 2010


Consider Ernie Shore and Harvey Haddix:

On June 23, 1917, Babe Ruth, then a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, walked the Washington Senators' first batter, Ray Morgan, on four straight pitches. Ruth, who had already been shouting at umpire Brick Owens about the quality of his calls, became even angrier and, in short order, was ejected. Enraged, Ruth charged Owens, swung at him, and had to be led off the field by a policeman. Ernie Shore came in to replace Ruth. Morgan was caught stealing by Sox catcher Pinch Thomas on the first pitch by Shore, who proceeded to retire the next 26 batters. All 27 outs were made while Shore was on the mound.
On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched what is often referred to as the greatest game in baseball history. Haddix carried a perfect game through an unprecedented 12 innings against the Milwaukee Braves, only to have it ruined when an error by third baseman Don Hoak allowed Felix Mantilla, the leadoff batter in the bottom of the 13th inning, to reach base. A sacrifice by Eddie Matthews and an intentional walk to Hank Aaron followed; the next batter, Joe Adcock, hit a home run that became a double when he passed Aaron on the bases. Haddix and the Pirates had lost the game 1–0; despite their 12 hits in the game, they could not bring a run home. The 12 perfect innings—36 consecutive batters retired in a single game—remains a record. (source: Wikipedia)
Shore was the pitcher of record for 27 consecutive outs; Haddix went perfectly through the opposition's line-up four times rather than three, yet neither man can claim an official Perfect Game.  Shore is credited with a combined no-hitter with Ruth; Haddix wound up being unceremoniously marked down as losing pitcher for his performance.  Talk about heartbreak on the ball field!

Add the name Armando Galarraga to that list.  Last night, the Tigers pitcher was perfect in the eyes of everyone but one lone umpire.  That umpire has already realized his mistake and owned up to it, but the result cannot be changed, and in the MLB books, Galarraga's Perfect Game will forever be recorded as a one-hit shutout.

The text from ESPN popped up on my iPhone last night that Galarraga had a Perfect Game going through 8 innings.  With two Perfect Games already in the books this year, this was simply amazing.  Quickly I flipped the TV over to the MLB Network and found that they were carrying the live feed of the game, now in the bottom of the 8th.  I settled in expecting to watch history unfold.  It did, but not quite the way everyone thought it would.

As Galarraga took the mound in the top of the 9th, the feeling that something special was happening crackled in the air - it was visible through the TV screen!  The first Cleveland batter, Mark Grudzielanek, lofted a fly ball to deep left-center. It looked bound for the gap to be a game-spoiling hit, but Detroit's Austin Jackson appeared to defy physics as he made an astounding Willie-Mays-esque catch to keep the Perfect Game alive. After Mike Redmond grounded out, all that stood between Galarraga and bseball history was Jason Donald.

Oh, and Jim Joyce.

Donald tapped a grounder between first and second, which firtsbaseman Miguel Cabrera fielded cleanly and threw to first where Galarraga was covering. It's a routine infield play, practiced ad nauseum by players of all levels, from Little League ball to the majors. Galarraga and the ball convened at the bag a full step before Donald arrived for the out, and the Perfect Game.

Except umpire Jim Joyce, to the astonishment of every other living being watching the play, called Donald safe.

"It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the *** out of it," Joyce said after the game. "I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay."

Galarraga retired the next batter to end the game, but because of Joyce's blown call, what should have been a Perfect Game instead goes into the books as a one-hit shutout. Instead of throwing the 21st Perfect Game in MLB history, Armando Galarraga becomes the 10th pitcher to have a potential Perfect Game spoiled by the 27th batter.

Immediately, the chorus of voices have risen declaring the need for instant replay in Major League Baseball. There is a petition to have Bud Selig overturn Joyce's ruling and credit Galarraga with a Perfect Game - something that has never been done in the history of baseball. But, the argument goes, this situation has never occured before in Major League Baseball.

Au contraire! There is, as they say, nothing new under the sun:
On July 4, 1908, Hooks Wiltse of the New York Giants hit Philadelphia Phillies pitcher George McQuillan on a 2–2 count in a scoreless game—the only time a 0–0 perfect game has been broken up by the 27th batter. Umpire Cy Rigler later admitted that he should have called the previous pitch strike 3. Wiltse pitched on, winning 1–0
You see, one of the things that sets baseball apart from the other sports is its intrinsic fallibility; it's reliance not on mechanical clocks and instant replays but on human judgment.  It is these very foibles that give the Grand Old Game its personality, that make it a joy (sometimes a heartbreaking joy, but a joy nonetheless) to watch; that create the legends that are passed down from generation to generation.  To remove that aspect of the game would be to remove the heart and soul of baseball.  It would become just another sterile, faceless sport.  Because we can go back and change calls based on what technology tells us does not mean we should, and I remain a staunch believer that the game of baseball should not fall victim to the technology of the day, but should remain a game of gentlemen agreed to be played based on the call of an impartial, human, umpire.

Jim Joyce is not the first umpire to boot a call so badly, nor will he be the last.  By all accounts, Joyce is one of the best umpires in the game.  But he is human, and he did make a mistake.  Give him credit for owning up to it, even though nothing could be done at that point to change the result.  Armando Galarraga accepted Joyce's apology after the game.  He did not speak ill of him at all to the press afterwards.  Tigers Manager Jim Leyland expressed his disappointment without raking Joyce over the coals for making what he thought was the right call, even though he later admitted being wrong.  All involved acted with great class and dignity. Those who today are still clamoring for Joyce's head in vile expletive-filled shouts should ask themselves why they aren't conducting themselves with similar class.

Galarraga's teammates still gave him a champagne shower after the game, and in the minds of many of us who watched, we saw the game's first 28-out Perfect Game.  And somewhere, Ernie Shore and Harvey Haddix are smiling.  They have company now.
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