Monday, March 10, 2014

DVD Review: Lou Reed Tribute: The DVD Collection * 3 Disc Set

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010-2014
Images from the Internet

Lou Reed Tribute: The DVD Collection * 3 Disc Set
Chrome Dreams
279 minutes, 2014

To those who are unaware, if there is anyone left, Lou Reed passed away on October 27, 2013. The good British folks who bring numerous and well-done independent documentaries about musicians and groups in the rock era, Chrome Dreams, have compiled three of their Lou Reed-related releases and put them into a three-disc box set. Cashing in? Perhaps, but the topic is important enough and of interest enough for me to say “thanks.” I had previously reviewed the final one in the set, so I am reprinting it here at the bottom.

The Velvet Underground: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis
Directed, produced and narrated by Tom Barbor-Might                       
Sexy Intellectual
85 minutes, 2006

Wow, this is definitely the Cole Notes (Classics Illustrated?) version of the story of the Velvet Underground (VU). Three minutes in Nico is being introduced to the band, as explained in an interview with Factory photographer and archivist, Billy Name, who was easily as influential on the scene as Warhol, though not as present in the public cultural zeitgeist. By seven minutes in, the first album is being recorded and drummer Maureen Tucker is describing the experience.

Mind you, I am not complaining about any of this. I mean, it’s easy enough to find a multitude of histories of every member of the VU. I probably have 5 or 6 on my bookshelf (I highly recommend Richie Unterberger’s 2009 White Light/White Heat). What makes this particular one special, to me is hearing from the people who were there, like Name and Tucker, so early on in this telling.

Besides, this isn’t a history of the Velvets, it’s a “critical analysis,” so unlike most of the amazing Chrome Dream catalog, it makes sense that a majority of those discussing the band are writers and critics who tell their opinions rather than second-hand anecdotes. The DVD starts going into depth, in fact, upon discussion of The Velvet Underground & Nico recording. The place is proper for Clinton Heyln, who wrote the book From the Velvets to the Voidoids (2005) to opinionate that “Venus in Furs” is the most important rock song since “Heartbreak Hotel.”

It gets especially interesting when they discuss the centerpiece of the album, “Heroin.” Norman Dolph, line producer of the album, discusses what the atmosphere was like being in the studio during the taping, and then Joe Harvard, who wrote the 33-1/3 Series book on the record, does a really nice analysis of not only what the song is saying lyrically, but musically. Tucker also tells a great story about her essential drumming/pounding on the song. Included is a live clip of the band playing it live.

Each song is dissected without being hypercritical and academically analytical, thankfully, placed in a context of fandom, so “Waiting for My Man” is explained in its Dylan influence, the subway sound of its rhythm (Robert Christgau here gives Mo her props), and the differences between the earlier “Ludlow Tapes” and the final product.

Sadly, the only Nico song discussed is “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and I would have loved to have heard them discuss “European Son,” which needs to be broken down.

After the departure of Nico, there is a segment about them playing at the Boston Tea Party in, well, Boston, discussed by the manager who booked them, Steve Nelson. This makes a nice separation between discussing their first release and their White Light/White Heat.

This second LP, according to some of the critics here, is what influenced the punk scene more than the first, as they flash images of the Stooges (who were actually contemporaries of the VU, not followers), the New York Dolls, Suicide, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie over the title song. Personally, I don’t believe it was any one album that led to the punk movement, but it was definitely part of the brick in the CB’s/Max’s wall.

Of course, they focus mainly on “Sister Ray,” described as the “centerpiece” of the album. There is definitely not as detailed an analysis as the firs release, which is a shame, since I know the first so much better than the second. I was interested, and it wasn’t there.

To me, though, the one real flaw is the mostly unidirectional discussion of influence during the recordings. What I mean by that is that they talk a lot about how other musicians were influenced by the VU, but other than a brief mention of Reed’s Dylan fixation on “Waiting For My Man” and Cale’s non-traditional jazz origin, there is no explanation of why the second VU album is so markedly different than the first, or who they were listening to at the time. I believe that VU were made of the exact same influences as the Stooges and the MC5, but used the filter of different loci scenes. It isn’t until the third album that we see a discussion of where the foundations lay.

Little over half a year after the album’s release, Cale left (or as Mo smilingly describes him, the “lunatic”), which changed the direction, minus the drone and screech. They became “melodic,” especially with the addition of Doug Yule. It’s great that Yule is interviewed about his tenure here, which included their self-titled LP from 1969 (aka “The Grey Album”).

Discussed from it is the quality and origin of the guitar solo from “What Goes On.” I like the photo of Yue putting the bass under his chin like Cale’s violin. Another song discussed is how Doug sang “Candy Says” (the song, of course, is about Candy Darling), and how he didn’t know Candy’s back story. Mo talks about recording her vocals on “After Hours,” with Doug adding his thoughts. By this time, the discussion is more about the recording process than about the content.

They do finally get around to Sterling Morrison (d. 1995) and how underrated he was as a guitarist, after an hour in to the whole she-bang. Sadly, we don’t’ get to hear Mo talk about him much, which is strange since they were the rhythm section for the entire tenure of the VU (not counting Yules solo release using the VU name, which is summarily and rightfully dismissed here). There is some talk of the mysterious “missing” LP (eventually released decades later) and Live at Max’s Kansas City, with Doug’s brother Billy replacing a pregnant Mo on drums, but the analysis has just about disappeared and it’s become less of a critical discussion as a “what happened,” documentary, which in itself is interesting, but not what was promised.

The last real VU album was Loaded, again which Mo could not play on, and Doug goes on record saying that they should have waited for her; Mo says unwaveringly that she wishes she could have done the song “Ocean.” Rightfully noted on the DVD, however, that even although the band was in the process of falling apart, it did impact two of the band’s well known songs, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll.” Christgau here posits that they are the most important songs the VU ever recorded.

There is a brief discussion by Mo and Doug about their initial reactions at the time to Lou leaving, and little further after that, but they are right in saying that music today would not be the same without the Velvets. There is no doubt that the Velvet Underground was a turning point in music, and I certainly enjoy their output, but I must add that while they changed the face of culture, so did many others.

Extras are “The Hardest Velvet’s Quiz in the World Ever” (I stopped after No. 5, having gotten them all correct), contributor bios, and a 15-minute short called “Velvet Reflections” (aka additional interviews not used in the DVD).

While I think the box is a bit over the top with its descriptor “…it is the finest film on the band ever to emerge,” it definitely kept my interest throughout, and I would recommend it both for the fan and also those who are interested in music history.

Punk Revolution NYC: The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls & the CBGBs Set – Part One 1966-1974
Directed by Unknown
Pride DVD
87 minutes, 2011

Of the three films, this is the one I was most looking forward to seeing, so I saw it last, of course… punk rawk! Most of the others were before my musical time (which for me began on June 20, 1975, my first time at CBGBs, seeing Talking Heads (their first show) opening for the Ramones. While I know of some of the people in the others, in this documentary, I have been in a room and shared conversations with most, and have physically seen the rest, including on stage.

The film posits that after the arrival of the Beatles, most of the new music in the US was from California, with the Byrds being the touchstone. That would change when John Cale met Lou Reed and they formed the Velvet Underground. A good point made here is that even though Reed was the central figure, without Cale’s avant-garde influence and Warhol’s push toward art, the VU probably would never have been so powerful a cultural force.

One important piece that they more dance around in the large VU history segment is that the band did not create a scene, but were part of the art collective. It was actually their legacy (i.e., recordings) that were picked up later in the cut-off bins for a buck or less after the band no longer existed that truly was influential to help create that scene half a decade later, when that was added to the likes of the Stooges, and MC5. But the New York CBGB’s scene as they’re calling it here – why was Max’s not included in the title, I wonder, as it features prominently here – was also an anti-movement, exploding as much against corporate/classic rock as for its influences. The black hole was as important as the primordial soup in this case, for the growth of punk rock. But I get ahead of myself…

However, there was a progression from Warhol to the scene, as they explain, as many of the “superstars” or near-super were from the indie theater (e.g., The Theater of the Ridiculous), including those who would foster the nascent scene, such as Jayne County, Elda Gentile (aka Elda Stiletto) – both interviewed here – Patti Smith, Cherry Vanilla, David Johansen, Debbie Harry, and Eric Emerson.

The doc veers a bit into how the Warhol crowd influenced Bowie (after all, this is a British film) before veering back to Emerson and his band the Magic Tramps being a catalyst to the opening of the Mercer Arts Center in New York to bands. This was what opened up a space for the true link between the Velvets and what was to come in 1974 with CBGBs, and the New York Dolls (who are still not in the corporatized Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum because they never made enough money for the record companies; don’t get me started). Stunningly, and rightfully so, this film also gives almost equal credit as the Dolls to the duo of Suicide (who, they point out, were arguably the first to use the term punk music in the very early ‘70s). Jayne County refers to them perfectly: “Suicide were so genius they went over everyone’s head.”

From there, of course, they jump to Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, joining musically as well as poetic frienemies, with Richard Lloyd to form Television. The story is infamous now about how they approached Hilly Kristal to open up CBGBs to new music, as is related here by Hell and Lloyd (though not together, of course). Television brought their own opening act, the Stilettos, which would implode and, with a shake-up, become Blondie.

With the rise of CBGBs (and apparently the disappearance of Max’s since the showcase, which became even more amazing after the Warhol crowd abandoned it, is unfairly barely mentioned again), came the overshadowing of the Dolls, and thus ends Part I. No mention of the Ramones or the Heartbreakers, dammit.

It amuses me how they keep bringing Britain into the whole shebang (Warhol crowd goes to London! Bowie calls Television original!), yet they never once mention how Malcolm McLaren was hanging around and getting / borrowing ideas for his own British store and scene.

There are a couple of oversimplifications and a bit over crediting, but generally this is a nicely handled overview of the sex leading up to the birth of the New York Scene. What is really remarkable is some of the talent they get to speak up for it. Usually there’s an overabundance of writers who comment on the scene (though it’s right that Robert Christgau be represented, though he would eventually turn his back on the NY scene and focus on the British end of it in his columns), but here, the partial list of interviewees include Jayne County (who tends to be undercredited for her role), photographer Roberta Baley, the ever-great storyteller and photographer Leee Black Childers, Danny Fields, Elda Gentile, David Johansen (for a sec), Alan Vega, and Richard Lloyd.

Along with the contributor bios, the main extra is an 8-minute featurette called “Anarchy in the UK – The New Yorkers Cross the Atlantic.” There has always been the chicken-and-egg argument of who got to where first. Here, Richard Hell states that they got it from us. British author Tony Fletcher states that we got it from them when we crossed the ocean and saw what they were doing. I think Jayne County, once again, gets it closer, where she states that outside NYC, bands didn’t do well, but in much smaller and densely populated England, where there is numerous weekly music newspapers, the NY bands were treated like royalty and gained a reputation. What no one else is mentioning is that when the relatively popular British bands came here, they entered a vacuum. I remember Eddie & the Hot Rods playing Max’s to a half filled, non-dancing crowd (which upset them). Even the Troggs played Max’s in ’77 to a well received, but not packed audience. When I saw the Police and the Vapors (“Turning Japanese”) play, it was in the basement of a Hotel on 43 St, and it was hardly crowded, and this was after “Roxanne” had been out.

Now I really want to see Part II…

The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou, 1971-1973
Directed by Alec Lindsell
Narrated by Thomas Arnold                      
Sexy Intellectual
107 minutes, 2010
[Reprinted from the FFanzeen blog, October 31, 2010]

Let’s get right down to it:

This is a British documentary, so you know which one of the three is getting the main focus. Okay, picture two pyramids next to each other. The one on the left is Lou Reed and the one on the right is Iggy. Balancing between them is a line connecting the two (that is Marc Bolan, mentioned often but not in detail). And finally there is the third pyramid of the “sacred” triangle, David Bowie, on top of it all. That is the vision presented here. Okay, I’m done. Naw, not really, as this is still an interesting – albeit somewhat skewed – vision of the three.

Let me quickly add here that I am totally impressed by the choice of interviews that have been selected for this doc, which is so much better than the Pearl Jam one in this series. But more on the talking heads later.

There’s no doubt that Bowie was influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, but that’s nothing new. Just listen to David Jones’ singing style around the Ziggy Stardust period, and it’s easy to see the progression from his earlier works. Personally, I’d rather listen to Reed’s take, but that’s just me walkin’ on the wild side on a Sunday morning when comes the dawning.

There’s plenty of clips here of the Velvets; well, as much as there really is, which is limited, and taken by the Warhol crowd “artfully” (i.e., in fast speed) while in Exploding Plastic Inevitable mode (Gerard and his whip dance is often present). Bowie was still in folkie / cutsie mode when he first heard “Waitin’ for My Man,” and (rightfully) became a huge VU fan. An example given here is his “Toy Soldier,” which is such a – er – homage to “Venus in Furs,” it even quotes it in a few place, such as the line “bleed for me.” The video for the song has someone dancing with whips. And on “Black County Rock,” as explained in this doc, Bowie even imitates Bolan. MainMan publicist and photographer Leee Black Childers, who would later manage Iggy and then the Heartbreakers, states here that Bowie’s true talent is to know what to steal. In fact he said this and many of other the other bon mots he posits in a FFanzeen interview conducted by our own Nancy Foster (aka Nancy Neon) back in 1982. [HERE]

Andy Warhol is shown as possibly as big an influence as the VU, and to talk about the theatrics of the Factory and its influence on Bowie are the likes of the very wound up VU biographer Victor Bockris, the fabulous aforementioned Childers (who used to have one of the coolest motorcycle jackets ever, with an image of Gene Vincent painted on its back), the equally extraordinary Jayne County, smartly dressed in bright red Little Red Riding Hood mode (she even matches the couch!), 16 Magazine publisher (early on) and Ramones manager Danny Fields, and the Psychotic Frog himself, Jimi LaLumia. They paint a vivid picture of Lou and Andy’s influence on not only Bowie, but music in general. But Bowie is the main focus here, and in this case almost rightfully so, as Lee, Jayne, and Jimi were all hired by the Bow-ster to work with Tony DeFries and help run his production company, MainMan. One person seriously missing from the interview call list, though, is Cherry Vanilla, which is a serious deficit.

But the person of interest for me here, interview wise, is definitely Angela Bowie. A while back I found her kind of abrasive, but I must say that my opinion has totally changed, and I now see her as incredibly refreshing. She holds nothing back, and will tell the most intimate details at top volume. My apologies to you, for any negative thoughts I may have had in the past. But I digress…

Other interviewees include writers Paul Tryoka and Dave Thompson, and musician John Harlsen, who was a drummer on the Bowie-produced Lou Reed first popular solo effort, Transformer (as well as being Barry Womble, of the Rutles), which included his hits “Satellite of Love” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” They all paint a very detailed portrait of Bowie, and what effect Reed and Iggy had on him, and how Bowie had affected them. Also included are some short interviews (more likely called clips) with the key artists involved, such as Bowie (from 2001 and 2007), Lou Reed (1986), Iggy (1988), and just as importantly, Mick Ronson (looking extremely frail shortly before his death in 1993). There would arguably be no Bowie to the scale he achieved without Ronson as a musical driving force (rather than an influence, like Reed and Pop), I’m convinced.

Possibly one of Warhol’s biggest influences (and he really is as big as either Lou or Iggy in the David Jones pantheon) is the idea that “You’re a Star!” and if you act like it, people will come to believe and expect it. Even before the money, there was the wardrobe, the limos, the expense accounts, and all the trappings. LaLumia states it quite well when he relates that Bowie claimed that “I’m an actor. I’m not a musician. I’m portraying a rock star.” I can’t argue with that, as I’ve always found that Lou Reed was true to what he believed, as was Iggy totally committed to what he was doing, but Bowie was posing, rather than being. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never found him to be someone I’ve looked up to musically, especially in the reality of the punk days of the Ramones and the ilk.

While Iggy’s role in the Bowie history (and vice-versa) is more commonly known, there is much less about Iggy here than either Reed or especially Warhol. Bowie famously helped Pop both get off drugs and revive his career. For me, Bowie major force was in the studio as a producer, more than a vocalist, or especially as an innovator, as he was a series of influences creatively recast. Angela probably had as much to do with Bowie’s success as did David or Ronson – or even DeFries. And I won’t even detail Cherry Vanilla’s outreach program.

The added feature to the DVD is a seven-minute documentary called “The Nico Connection,” which shows how she had touched the lives of all three musicians that are the focus of the main feature. There is a bio for each of the contributors, and it put a smile on my face to see my pals the She Wolves given a shout out by Jayne County, as they’ve worked together over the past few years.

As a last note, I would like to add that after viewing this DVD, check out The Velvet Goldmine, which will then make so much more sense.

Friday, March 7, 2014

DVD Review: DEVO: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

DEVO: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution
MVD Visual
70 minutes, 1993 / 2014

Looking back, the Dada-inspired band Devo represents everything I would come to hate about the ‘80s onward, i.e., electronica and arty theatrical music. And yet, they hold a bit of a special place in my musical history, even though I never saw them live.

I remember buying the original “Jocko Homo” single on Booji Boy Records (their own imprint) on 8th Street at Disc-O-File when it was first released; yes I still have it. It definitely sounds stronger than the album version that was turned into a hit song/video on MTV not much later. Singer/creator Mark Mothersbaugh’s voice was sharp as a razor on the catch phrase “Are we not MEN!?” But then again, there was no sideways dancing as he would do on the video that attracted so many other fans. I remember seeing people dancing like that when they played the song on the PA at the Peppermint Lounge.

 The basic premise of this DVD is a collection of 20 of the band’s videos over the years (listed below). I’ll comment on some of them, as the odds are you’ve seen them at some point or another if you – er – wanted your MTV.

 While not as disturbing as the Resident’s version of the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Devo cover is probably among the best well known. The spastic British second wave punk dancer flipping himself over in the occasional shot has become iconic of the early 1980s video days. As for the song, well, they certainly made it their own and it truly is an ear worm that is enjoyable.

If you’re like me, there are three things you remember about the “Come Back Jonee” video/song is (a) the cowboy outfits, (b) the repetitive rhythm (a Devo hallmark), and (c) the girl dancing by the keyboard. ‘Nuff said.

By the time they reached the “Whip It” stage, Devo sort of said everything they were going to say musically, but this is a band that wasn’t just oral, they were also optical. Their work in early digital video technology pushed its limits, using the medium as a palate of art, through color, effects, animation and experimentation. To me, that is one of the more important legacies of the band. Also, as far as I remember, they were among the pioneers of having videos that went beyond the song, and often had prologs and / or epilogs, making the songs into mini-movies, especially in the earlier ones, a wave that Michael Jackson would successfully jump on for Thriller.

Speaking of “Whip It,” watching it in retrospect, as this is the uncut version, it really does go into the whole promotion of rape culture. One woman’s clothes are violently and literally “whipped” off, while a cross-eyed woman is sexually assaulted by a rancher while his girlfriend yells (via caption scrawl) “Ride ‘em cowboy.” And, of course, the victim in this case is shown as willing (where is Tex Antoine when you need him). But at least the song is catchy, right? They do address it in the commentary, explaining, in part, that the cowboys represent the Reagan Republicans. Still…

An interesting aspect about watching these videos in a row is that you can notice themes, such as many of the songs are about individuality (e.g., “Freedom of Choice.” “Through Being Cool,’ and “Peek-A-Boo”), but the images promote getting it by being like everyone else. Reminds me of when Culture Club was first popular, in New York they had a Boy George lookalike contest (teenage girls showed up), and when questioned why they were dressing that way, one girl said, “Boy George is unique, and I want to be unique just like him” (shades of the crowd scene in Life of Brian). Uniformity is not unique; even within subcultures (e.g., hardcore and suspenders, grunge and plaid). Even when one is trying to be an individual, to fit into an ostracized group you must be recognizable to that collective. Devo seem to promote that. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, as it’s natural, I’m just pointing it out.

There is also a surprisingly large amount of images of violence, “Whip It” is the easy choice, but people are shooting others with ray-gun (usually to transform them into uni-bots), stabbings, electrocutions, and the like. Yes, it’s also used as social commentary in “Beautiful World,” but just check out “Love Without Anger.” Even in the later “Post-Post Modern Man” someone shoots the band’s name into a wall with a machine gun.

Sadly, by the end of these videos, they had gone from New Wave to jumping on the post-disco wave (much like the Clash). Meh.

To call this merely a collection of videos, though, is a major understatement because it extras are clearly as numerous and as historically important. In part, as there are too many to mention here, there is a collection of live footage from throughout the band’s tenure, including some crude b&w video from their very first performance at Kent State in – are you ready for this? – 1972. Even then, you can see what was coming, though they weren’t there yet. Humorously, there are a lot of empty seats in the theater. There are also commercials, shorts, a brief interview with the director their first video (“Secret Agent Man”), Chuck Statler, and the obligatory yet consistently interesting commentary track by band co-founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale.

The only thing missing was the spoof, "Dare to Be Stupid" by Weird Al Yankovic.

Song List:
Devo Corporate Anthem
Secret Agent Man
Jocko Homo
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Come Back Jonee
The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise
Worried Man
Whip It
Girl U Want
Freedom of Choice
Through Being Cool
Love Without Anger
Beautiful World
Time Out For Fun
That’s Good
Theme from Dr. Detroit
Disco Dancer
Post-Post Modern Man
Post-Post Modern Man (Remix)
 Jocko Homo (LP version):


Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid”