Sunday, September 21, 2008

Lights, Camera, Action!

A new wave fashion show from 1982

Here's a recently-unearthed document of the early 1980s in St. Louis new wave.

My friends Ed Mantels-Seeker, who had helped by doing almost all the work on Surf's Up, Gang! had been shooting super 8 movies for a while using the single-frame technique he had picked up from Roy Zurick. According to what he told the interviewer on the program Airtime, which aired this movie in 1983, I told him his footage would work as a music video with this song. So he shot some extra footage of me and spliced it in with the footage he had been shooting of girls dressed in new wave clothes.
Lights, Camera, Action!

You're the kind of girl
who takes all the film
my camera's got
Get your lens in focus
open up your eyes
what a bop shot

Turn a little to the right.
We're gonna do this all night.

Your beauty's rooty-tooty
and a little snobby snooty
I hope you know
You've really been a pest
but you've passed my test
and done all my snow

You're such a high fashion girl.
It's such a high fashion world.

You're a walking groovy movie
and you know you always prove me
you're really hot
I've directed what's expected
and the chances are a thriller
is what we've got

I got the film on TV.
Next time you better believe me.

You're a leaning tower of Pisa
with a screaming Mona Lisa
in a danger zone
We're gonna take the image
and rotoscope it

Cartoons. Comics. Hitler.
Make up. Violence. Hit her!

My band The Obvious recorded this song at our second recording session in Illinois at some studio in Collinsville or Belleville. It was one of the last songs I wrote for the band, as I can tell by the reference to "getting the film on TV", which is about the hollow triumph of getting Surf's Up, Gang! on the Airtime program on the local PBS affiliate in St. Louis. So this song was probably written in 1982 sometime, and in retrospect I can see some dark undertones about the direction punk/new wave was taking.

I started off my new wave musical career high. I got together with two really beautiful and sex-crazed 16 year old girl friends who called themselves The Oui-Oui Twins and my dad bought an abandoned building on Olive just West of Taylor in the West End of St. Louis. I moved into the legally uninhabitable building - it only had one working toilet, in the retail space at the bottom, and in the trashed-out apartment I squatted in there was just a reeking toilet that didn't work but which had been used by accident a few too many times.

Many friends popped up, eager to help and encourage me in my dream of opening St. Louis' first punk club. First and foremost among these friends was the amazing artist Mort Hill. He attracted a goodly crowd of art twits and hipsters and we went at making a club out of an empty room like Our Gang in an old Mack Sennet short.

There was a small crowd of punk fans in St. Louis at the time, and it was pretty open and close-knit, because we were all there were. We had all spent our door money on renting bowling alleys and VFW halls up until now, and we were all desperate for someplace to play.

After about six months I closed the club for a variety of fascinating reasons that I will address later, and spent the summer, filming Surf's Up, Gang! Closing the club was a huge blow, but I was never cut out to be a club owner and only half-heartedly pursued the idea of opening up another one, mostly because people would always tell me I should do it again.

I find it interesting how difficult it was to actually film something back then compared to now. Look at Ed's technique and you'll see he did an enormous amount of work - much of it edited in camera - to make his frantic little pieces. Nowadays we have digital video with instant results and it's hard to find anyone who will even bother.

Over the year we gradually fell apart as a group, first losing our bass player, Jim Saltsider, the night that Surf's Up was broadcast on TV. The hardcore punk scene started changing the attitude of the local punks, people became more hateful, and The Obvious and my attitude became hopelessly unhip. I tried to hardcore myself up a little, like in the last verse of this song, but nobody was buying it because anyone who knew me knew it wasn't real.

Watching this video after Surf's Up is like watching me go out of style before your very eyes, yet, at the same time, I'm almost amazed at how much effort went into what was a decent song and a decent stab at a New Wave video. I've seen much worse from national bands dating from the same time. And it makes me wonder if I hadn't been falling apart and under funded, could I have gotten some positive record label response if I had been able to send a copy of this video out to them?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Classical Music

Classical Music was one of the first songs that Slash and I wrote with lyrics. I remember we wrote it when Slash was living on 12th street, after the final abandonment of 18th street. It was the first crazy statement of our pop ambitions, and a completely sarcastic and insincere boast. At least back then I thought so.

This was the oldest song we recorded on the Jambox Change Music Variety Show EP. As the time between the jokey conception of this song and the recording went by, the delusions of greatness we sing about became a little too real for my stomach. It’s rather strange to think that of all of the bands in the world you might expect to be our ideal, it was the incredible Parliament Funkadelic group of bands that we aspired to sound like. If you have the sound on and the QuickTime plug-in on your computer, you can hear the incredible arrhythmic pace is far closer to punk than funk.

We had nothing against punk ourselves, it was just a peripheral tangent at best when you had all the funk you wanted thumping out of tiny boombox speakers from WESL and other radio stations and no money for records at all. It’s funny how punk Jambox was by sheer accident and by dint of a range of influences that stretched from Captain Beefheart’s immortal Trout Mask Replica to Jaco Pastorius or the Mahavishnu Orchestra. You take a love of free jazz style noise rock and fusion jazz and mix it with a certain amount of dexterity and an overabundance of energy minus the inclination to try to sound coherent and you get the signature Change Music sound.

We’re playing Classical music for ya
We’re a group of infant prodigies
We’re playing Classical music for ya
We’ve each written twelve symphonies
But we’re declinin’ to play ‘em for ya
Because we’d rather Jambox at our ease
We’re playing Classical music for ya
And if we could you know we might
We’re playing Classical music for ya
And if we could you know we might
We’ve got the sound of a million
In the air it’s quite a fright
But we’re playing Classical music for ya
And we’re gonna jam all night

Over the brewery and into the grain
Mash madhouse mixture desires grow plain.

We’re playing Popular music for ya
We just formed ten minutes ago
We’re playing Platinum music for ya
Tragical blues sick rules? Dog no!
We’re playing Popular music for ya
And we’re number one on the charts
We’re playing Platinum music for ya
And we’re number one on the charts
We’re playing Popular music for ya
This is where the jammin starts
We’re playing Popular music for ya
And we’re gonna break your hearts.

I blush to admit that I alone am responsible for the tone and braggadocio of this song, though it was written with Slash Brannon, who contributed the two most beautiful lines in the song: “Over the brewery and into the grain/Mash madhouse mixture desires grow plain.” which is the most beautiful lyric ever written of a man longing for a beer. I also used one of his signature catch phrases “Tragical Blues Sick Rules” which might have actually been one of his super-short little poems. Another one of his mini poems in the same vein was “Sort short lock shit type niceties OUT”

Slash and I started out playing together acoustically when we became roommates living on 18th Street near Russell in the greater Soulard area of South St. Louis. I wasn’t a great guitar player; I was possessed of just the most rudimentary ideas of music theory and a few chords, some of which I had simply invented, though any fingering you can think of has probably been done before.

Slash Brannon, however, was a good violin player, very fast, and he played with a technique he had developed on his own that was more like bebop than anything else, long shimmering runs of notes that seemed crazy at first but which made a unique harmonic sense after you started to grasp the patterns. The sound of my classical nylon-stringed guitar and the violin blended well, especially since I was fond of playing the bass strings and he held down the high end, when acoustic, without much of the unstable screechiness that most of us dislike about amateur violin.

I have strong visual memories of us sitting in his room next to mine in the weak winter sunlight playing together, just me doing chords in patterns and him improvising along. From the start I was organizing my chords into melodic structures that resembled songs, in order to make it easier to jam to and to make it easier for me to enjoy what he was playing. Much of the stuff we played ended up turning into songs over the years, especially after we started considering ourselves a band and got Rico DeBool to play bass.

Many times through the years I played with Slash I longed for a return to the acoustic sound we started with. Amplified guitars and violins were exciting, but the sound wasn’t nearly as light and pleasant. I never really accepted Rico DeBool’s bass playing, also, even though he was light years ahead of his time in some ways. I would have preferred a bass player like Kent Gray, who could do slamming funk patterns you could dance to, while Rico was strictly an improvisor and fond of strange melodic lines that bubbled away under the melodies in an almost random manner. This left the guitar and vocals alone to hold up the melody. When Fojammi joined up as drummer, he played the drums in the same random, melodic manner, until whatever melody we once had was like a tiny little voice in the back of your head screaming, almost inaudibly, that something was wrong here, that something was not quite right.

Here's a revamp of Classical Music from the early nineties Fojamathon sessions.

Download Jambox's "Classical Music"
Download Fojammathon's "Classical Music."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Change Music Manifesto

When I was about eighteen years old I was thoroughly sick of all the old fat rock and roll stars. I'd heard every fantasy rock cliche, every bombastic, self-important guitar solo; suffered through the meandering experiments and pseudo-country inversions presented to me throughout the seventies, and was done with it.

When I played my own free-floating excursions into melodic invention with my friend Slash Brannon I heard something new and different. It was easy to mistake the fumblings of innocence with the divine spark of creation. I still wonder if it isn't really the only way to create music that is true, this obscure and heedless tumbling through notes unknown, harmonies never before heard, changes written by the deaf presumptuousness of youth.

I seized on a central conceit and boldly decided that we could by step critical dismissal by inventing a new musical genre for ourselves, many years before the electronica crowd started naming every other dance beat another obscure name.

It was some of the Beatles best songs that suggested the idea to me, and the ambition of music in the seventies in general that made it clear: Music that changes drastically and notably at least once per song. Though we failed miserably at realizing this dream of songs that took you from one strong melody to the next seamlessly and with style and fascination, I can point out some songs that did what I hoped my Change Music would be.

"Uncle Admiral Albert Halsey" by Paul McCartney, is perhaps the greatest work of Change Music ever written. I used to always hold it up as the explanation of what I was getting at when I spoke of Jambox writing change music. I think Paul knows what I'm talking about. He recently did it again, as if it were something he does when he wants to, deliberately, as a style of his own, in his last album "Memory Almost Full". The song "Mr. Bellamy" is much like "Uncle Albert" and listening to either song will reveal exactly what I mean by Change Music.

I explained it to anyone who would listen by emphasizing that it would help stop critics from saying that our music was either rock or folk or jazz or funk. I liked the idea that if I was to be pigeonholed, I would name the pigeonhole. I wasn't aware that what we were doing, while not the Change Music of my ambitions, was so chaotic and indifferent to any kind of rational expression that it was a genre unto itself. You could simply call it bad, off-key, rhythmically crap music if you wanted and it would be hard to argue the point. But you might as well call it Change Music and the hell with it.

My next post will feature some of this infamous Change Music. So subscribe to my blog and you won't miss a single insane note of it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy

My Grandpa, Mom and Grandma.

Whether some ineffable essence called talent actually exists is a question I'll never fully resolve. My own view of music as a delightful entertainment that can be executed enjoyably by anyone is rooted in a mythic American past when families gathered around the piano or the ukelele, and simply sang what they liked all together with little thought of art or style.

As a teenager I quickly grew disgruntled with the contrast between the sweet fantasy of the hippie counterculture and the long-haired pot-smoking hoosiers who were sporting the outward trappings of hippieness without any grace or beauty. I was trapped in a mid-seventies world of popular hippieness and I felt ill-defined by it. I was also into so many things which were fringe aspect of the seventies, like the rediscovery of swing music, glitter, jazz rock fusion, and the bombastic excesses of fantasy rock.

In order to give myself a slight, ironic distance from the all-too-common hippie guitar player I was going to become, I decided to regard the guitar as a primarily cowboy instrument in order to downplay any seriousness of intent I might have been mistaken for having.

So one night, hanging out with my friend David Bohannon from Honors Art class, he urged me to learn a few chords on the guitar because it was so easy, he said, anyone could do it.

He showed me a few chords, which I rejected as being too difficult, like a G chord, which just looked freaky to the inexperienced eye.

"Are there any chords you can do with two fingers?" I prompted. He thought for a second, and then he demonstrated the E minor chord. Perfect. I tried it out. Plaintive, wild, low. I liked it.

"Sounds like the frontier wind whipping across the trackless desert sands around a cowboy's lonely campfire." I said, squinting into the imaginary dust storm in my brain.

"Have you heard the ballad of the lonesome cowboy?" I sang, and then hit the notes. "The lonesome cowboy's - let's see."

"I need another easy chord." I told Dave. He must have suggested the A major chord, and in doing so also showed me how you could add a D on it to get a nice little variation on it. It didn't do the job for me, but I made the two chords into a song anyway. Later on I discovered the chord I needed was a C major chord.

I used to love to play this with sarcasm and irony around school whenever I thought the guitar players were getting too much attention, which was all the time.

Download "The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy."

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Change Music Variety Show

Portrait of the author as a young punk club owner.

Music is the strangest cultural construct in so many ways, and I've been of many different minds about it and what it is supposed to mean to me and the world at large.

I came of age in the midst of the change from monolithic bands who sold lots of records to the punk/new wave revolution of every snot nosed punk in a garage banging out chords and dreaming they were hits. From the arrogant aristocracy of finely-crafted talent to the current wasteland of endless noise. And I was possessed by the delusional yet amusing belief that I too could have been one of the best.

Because what I went through was both typical and also extreme I'm going to examine here my various attempts, which range from absolute drivel to the best I could possibly do. Though I've never been endowed with too much talent I think I've been clever and hopefully interesting. The posts will be coming with some regularity, and will include both music and crude comedy.