Tuesday, December 5, 2017

ABBA in Heaven and Other Considerations [1983]

Text by Anni Ackner / FFanzeen, 1983
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #11, dated 1983, by Anni Ackner. Normally, ABBA is not a band I would have published anything about in my fanzine. It’s nothing against the music, which I found non-harmful albeit vanilla, it just didn’t fit into the format of what I imagined the mag to be at the time, but was tricked into publishing it by the writer, whose name was a pseudonym for another writer who tended to focus on British and other European pop artists. Yes, I was duped, and I was not pleased about it.

Looking back at the piece, I think it is an interesting work of free association via run-on sentences, despite all the whoo-ha. It is also important to note that ABBA was more at a cult status at this point, before they became what “Anni” calls “legitimate.” While I don’t agree with some of what’s written here, it’s still a pretty amusing commentary on the state of the music industry at the time, although on some level some points still stand. However, on some punk level, the more “legitimate” (accepted) a band becomes, the less legitimate it stays (i.e., “I saw them back when…”). – RBF, 2017

Celestial Scenario: Phase One

Someday, as will happen to us all, ABBA will die and, Sweden being a tolerably Lutheran country, journey to Heaven to be met at is outskirts by the Keeper of the Gates, envisioned, in this instance, as one of those Grown Up music critics who hang around at One University and write long dissertations on Rock’n’Roll as an Art Form. There will be several tense moments as the Keeper of the Gates polishes his Chameleon Sunglasses, snorts a little cocaine through a discarded angel’s wing, and decides whether to let them all in or to send them to the place where the really bad pop stars to, which is either hell or a disc jockey spot at the Peppermint Lounge.

Eventually, Frida will get in because she did an album with Phil Collins and so bought herself a piece of rock’n’roll respectability. Agnetha will get in on the theory that anyone who bears that strong a resemblance to Malibu Barbie could not possibly have led a sinful life. Benny will get in because with all the negative reviews, bad criticism, and just plain nasty cracks ABBA has received over the years, no one has ever been truthfully able to say that he isn’t an immensely talented musician. There will then be a certain amount of hemming and hawing and buffing of the fingernails when it comes to Bjorn. Bjorn – reasonably good guitar player, reasonably good singer – nothing terribly askew there – but – ah ha, here we go – the one generally assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be the perpetrator of Those Lyrics. You know Those Lyrics. “Superficial” is probably the nicest adjective that’s ever been applied to them: “saccharine” seems almost too kind. There will be serious doubts as to whether a man capable of inflicting “The Winner Takes All” upon a mass audience ought to be allowed into the same Heaven that will, at least theoretically, harbor the likes of Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan. Ultimately, however, mumbling under his breath about the Need for Escapism in a Complex World and People Writing in Second Languages, the Keeper of the Gates will let Bjorn in, a bit condescendingly, somewhat impatiently, and with a hint of embarrassment, but in nevertheless, as long as he keeps in mind the extreme tenuousness of his position, and the great honor that has been accorded him.

Legitimacy and How it Gets That Way
How I was Mick Jaggered Into Submission

There’s a lot of justification floating about the music criticism circles regarding ABBA. Periodically, articles (or perhaps it’s the same article – they always do seem to be called ABBA-Dabba-Do) crop up in places like Creem or Trouser Press in which the writer admits, sheepishly, that he likes the band, goes on to list 20 or 30 good reasons why he shouldn’t like them and then, striking a literary pose vaguely reminiscent of the belligerent six-year-old gallantly defending his teddy bear against the taunts of the neighborhood gang, reiterates that he likes them anyway, and if you don’t like it, you can just lump it, that’s all. It’s a curious cultural phenomenon. No one, after all, feels called upon to justify his fondness for, say, Pete Townshend, even allowing for “All the Best Cowboy Have Chinese Eyes,” but then, no one has ever referred to the Who as “the most pointless band in the world,” a superlative invented for ABBA by a Grown Up music critic whose name, after a great deal of effort, I have managed to forget.

“I know it’s only rock’n’roll
But I like it” – The Rolling Stones

“It’s got to be rock’n’roll
To fill the hole in your soul” – ABBA

The most interesting aspect of the previous superlative, to my way of thinking, is that rock’n’roll, just in general, is pretty much beside the point anyway. To defer to the Pioneer Corporation, the music matters, but not all that much. Rock’n’roll, painful as it may be to admit, is simply rock’n’roll. It does not cure cancer. It does not end discrimination. It maybe the soundtrack for a revolution, but it does not bring about the revolution, as Paul Kantner once discovered, and it was never meant to do any of those other things. All rock’n’roll was ever meant to do was bring a few moments of pleasure to a lot of people, and make a lot of money for a few people, which are not inconsiderable tasks in themselves, but any pretentions it has to being either an Art Form or a Great Social and Political Force were thrust upon it by the Grown Up music critics, many of whom seem to feel slightly ashamed of themselves for reviewing independent label releases for Hit Parade rather than small press books for the Sunday Times. As such, given that criteria, there’s really no more inherent point to the Clash rocking the Casbah than there is to ABBA metaphorically refighting the battle of Waterloo.

Of course, there’s good rock’n’roll and there’s bad rock’n’roll, but what is or is not one thing or another is basically a matter of taste. You either like something or you don’t – in spite or because of – its supposed technical aspects or, at least, that’s the way it is ideally. Which brings me to:

Subheading Number Nine Number Nine Number Nine
It’s Hard to be Hip and Think Johnny Lydon Walks Funny

There is an insidious but observable – well, “prejudice” is no doubt too strong a word; let’s say “leaning” – at play in the minds of the Grown Up rock critics that can be summed up most easily as, “Some bands are legitimate, some bands are not,” or paraphrased another way, “It’s cool to like some music, it’s shit to like others.” The criteria for legitimacy are changeable, but always strict and well-defined. A legitimate band always comes from a legitimate place, currently for instance, New York, England or Berlin. A band may then cement its legitimacy by being the first to be recognized as performing in a certain way – the Beatles weren’t the first to do “Beatle” music, but they were the first that anyone noticed – by sounding legitimate – an indefinable quality that has nothing whatsoever to do with sounding meaningful. Pete Seeger sounds meaningful. The Police sound legitimate – or by becoming the pet band of a rock critic who himself has legitimacy, i.e., Lester Bangs and the Velvet Underground.

A good way to become legitimate, particularly for a solo performer (who normally has a harder time obtaining it than do bands), is to die. Harry Chapin was on no one’s legitimate list until he happened to meet up with the wrong end of a truck. The most passive way to achieve legitimacy is simply to hang around so long that you begin to look either basic or venerable – vis-à-vis the Monkees – but no matter how you attain it, it all boils down to the same thing in the end.

Bands which are not legitimate come from places like Los Angeles and Cleveland and, then, at least at the moment, compound this crime by playing soft rock – on the grounds that anything that doesn’t deafen you can’t possibly be worth listening to – or heavy metal – on the grounds that anything that deafens you that much can’t be any good either – by looking too clean (real rock stars don’t take baths) or too pretty (real rock stars are weathered by Life), by lacking a sense of humor or having too much of one, or simply by being a singer / songwriter who doesn’t have the right music fans in his back-up band, or who uses no back-up band at all. Again, getting there is none of the fun. When you’re hot you’re hot, and when you’re not you get a bad rating from Robert Christgau.

From whence cometh:

The Goat’s Head Soup Syndrome

The Goat’s Head Soup Syndrome, in its entirety, states that a legitimate band cannot make a bad record. When the Rolling Stones released Goat’s Head Soup several years ago, it was obvious to everyone whose hearing had not been damaged by prolonged exposure to tapes of the campaign speeches of the 1972 Presidential candidates that this was a Bad Record, a painful listening experience, a Real Stinkeroo, and had anyone except a completely legitimate band like the Stones (the Cadillacs of legitimate bands) released it, it would have been consigned to the 99¢ bins where it belonged, inside of a week. However, as it was the Stones, the album not only sold very well, at full retail price, the reviews, rather than being damning, ran along the lines of, “Although this is not up to the Stones’ usual standards, it is still better than 90% of the music released today.” A clear case of praising with faint damns.

The Goat’s Head Soup Syndrome, almost of necessity, carries with it:

The Maurice Gibb Corollary

Which states, in its entirety, that if the Bee Gees were to suddenly turn around and release the most stupendously good record ever heard since the invention of the diamond needle, no one would admit it. No one would buy it, the AOR stations wouldn’t play it, MTV wouldn’t show the videos, and the Grown Up rock critics would give it awful reviews. Once a band has been declared “not legitimate,” it’s very difficult for it to achieve legitimacy. It just about takes, as has been stated, death, or venerability or, short of that, teaming up with a songwriter or bass player or producer who comes equipped with his own legitimacy, as Fridadid with Phil Collins.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to:


ABBA has always been not legitimate. To begin with, they come from a silly place. Unlike England, Sweden is not legitimate. England has working class angst; Sweden has meatballs. England has the dole; Sweden has the welfare state. England has Benny Hill; Sweden has pornographic films. You see how it goes. And it gets worse. ABBA plays soft rock. They are most awfully clean. They have not one, but two (three, if you’re in the mood to count Bjorn) pretty lead singers, and they use their own musicians, rather than the ones Todd Rundgren had on his last record. And then, of course, there are Those Lyrics, about which much can be said, and probably will.

Since ABBA does have a few things going for them. They have catchy little tunes, terrific harmonies, and clean productions. They’re fun to listen to, and even Billy Altman likes to have fun. There are still Those Lyrics, but by the same token, not everything Bob Dylan writes is a little gem either. And lately, ABBA has been making some minor stabs at respectability, if not legitimacy. There’s Frida and her good friend Phil, and that last record – actually a jazzed-up Greatest Hits album, but what the hell – got a great, live, bona fide rave from Rolling Stone, no easy ravers, and now Bjorn and Benny, the wonderful folks who brought you “Dancing Queen,” are teaming up with Lloyd-Weber and Rice, the wonderful folks who brought you Evita, to write an opera about Soviet chess players (well, okay, but I bet a musical about singing kitty cats didn’t sound lie a hot idea either), so you never know.

And so, the Grown Up rock critics sneak about, hiding their copies of “The Visitors” (not a bad little record by itself, by the way) in the closet behind the old Nehru jackets, and justifying their taste as though it were a particularly bizarre sexual predilection. If ABBA’s new-found respectability grows any larger, there may be a lot more repetitions of ABBA-Dabba-Do. In their case, it probably won’t bother ABBA, who will someday, as will all of us, die.

Celestial Scenario Phase Two:

After journeying to Heaven, ABBA is met at its outskirts by the Keeper of the Gates. Frida will get in because she made an album with Phil Collins. Agnetha will get in because no woman with 32-inch hips can ever be conceived of having led a sinful life. Benny will get in because he is a consummate musician. And then there will be Bjorn.

The Keeper of the Gates and Bjorn will look at each other thoughtfully:
“Well,” the Keeper of the Gates will say.
“Well,” Bjorn will say.

“Wrote an opera with Lloyd-Weber and Rice, didn’t you?” The Keeper will say.
“Yes,” Bjorn will say.

“That’s nice.”
“Thank you.”

“’The Visitors’ really wasn’t such a bad song, at that,” The Keeper will say, looking at his feet.
“I always thought so,” Bjorn will say, looking at whatever piece of the sky you can see from Up There.

“But still, most of Those Lyrics…”
“But still, how many songs have you written in Swedish? Or in any language, for that matter?”

“That’s no defense. Other people didn’t write Those Lyrics.”

Bjorn will hum selected cuts from Face Dances. They will look at each other once again.
“Oh, God,” the Keeper of the Gates will sigh.
“So I hear,” Bjorn will say, And he will go in.

The end. Amen.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary
Directed by James Lathos
Small Axe Films; Giraffe Productions; MVD Visual
91 minutes / 2016; 2017

I truly believe it would be hard to argue that the Bad Brains (BB) were one of the top American hardcore groups in the 1980s, and possibly the loudest and fastest of the bunch. As musicians, they are hard to beat. As people? Well… more on that later.

The British-American BB’s lead singer was Paul Hudson, whose name was abbreviated to just HR. As a kid, he was known as “Hunting Rod” for the walking stick he habitually carried, and in the middle days it became “Human Rights,” as in the post-BB group, the HR Band (Human Rights). With the deepening of his Rasta studies, he became Joseph I.  

I was actually excited to see this documentary as, to be honest, I never saw the BB play live, or any of his other bands. I’ve seen some videos though, and they are damn exciting to watch. But what interested me the most is to see what others had to say about him.

There is no doubt this documentary by first time director James Lathos is a love fest for the man. Even though it does not shy away from some of his personal issues and demons, it presents a string of people saying how he “sparked modern punk rock” right to being a “living legend,” which is stated more than once.

Y’know what, yeah, some of that is true. While I don’t believe the BB “sparked” hardcore, they definitely upped it more than a notch that set a very high bar. They were known for their speed, their dexterity, and a brilliant stage show with HR as its center. It was the Dead Boys that turned the BB onto what would become hardcore, and I believe the Dead Boys were the catalyst that truly sparked hardcore, but man, the BB were right at the fore.

Bad Brains, with HR in the forefront
(Earl on the right)
The documentary starts with a history lesson, as these things are wont to do, describing HR’s childhood mostly through his eyes and those of his BB band mate and real life brother, drummer Earl Hudson. They describe a somewhat tumultuous family life that moved around a lot, which scarred HR. Music, though, always seemed a focusing point to center him then.

Over the years, HR fronted many other bands as well as the BB, such as Human Rights, Zion Train, Soul Brains (the reunited BB), and he even sat in with Sublime. Over the years, it almost seems like he was increasingly channeling George Clinton’s haberdasher.

What becomes ever clearer over time is that there was something seriously wrong with him, on which the documentary shines a strong light, which is the advent and crush of mental illness. In his youth and well into the BB, he was a strong user of LSD; and even into his “purer” Rasta days when he reportedly stopped using acid, I cannot imagine his not overindulging in the religion’s holy weed. While not truly defined, it is assumed here (and sounds right to me) that with over use of substances, he has fallen into schizophrenia, including hearing and seeing what’s not necessarily there for most humans to hear and see.

Other than his brother, the clearest picture is given by his long-time manager, Anthony Countey, and his later-married wife. Of course, he joins a long history of modern and innovative musicians who have suffered from mental distress, such as Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson.

Speaking of musicians, there are a lot here speaking up for him at a pedestal level, even if things didn’t go well with the band, such as (of course) the BB, Sublime, and various others such as Vernon Reid, members of the Cro-Mags, the Brothers MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi (Ian and Alec; the BB started in Washington DC), and Fishbone.

I was surprised there wasn’t more of Positive Force on there, and also missing was anyone from the Beastie Boys; HR’s band infamously toured with them, as they were signed to the Boys’ Maverick label. Someone from the label is represented here, but not the pseudo-punk rappers.  I was not, however, amazed at all (though curious to see) that no members from the Texas groups MDC (Millions of Dead Cops/Multi-Death Corporation) or the Big Boys were accounted for, all things considered:

Back in 1983, I published (but did not write) an article in FFanzeen about the people in the BB, which was less than flattering. For this, I received a lot hate mail from the hardcore scene. The core of the piece centers on that when the band found Rasta, as is described in the documentary, they also accepted its generally homophobic stance, which is not detailed in the film. There was also at least one recording studio they ripped off in New York, forcing it to close. The link to that article is HERE

One could look back and say, “Oh, well, HR was mentally sick,” but this is before any symptoms were apparent, and it was the whole band, not just HR. But, of course, this documentary is mostly focused on the person, so I’ll continue on that course.

Despite the standardized beginning of a biography documentary that more-or-less lists the facts (s/he was born there, lived here, moved there, etc.), thankfully it’s less than 10 minutes before we hear about a young HR going to New York and seeing the Dead Boys (nice clip of them from 1982 at CBGBs; yes, I was there). This changed the direction of the newly-formed BB into the hardcore mavericks and scene leaders they became; it’s arguable who were more influential in DC, the BB or Minor Threat; I’m happy to just call it a tie.

Following the progress of the BB, their dissolving due in large part to unpredictability, and the follow-through of other bands, as well as the onset of HR’s mental illness definitely makes compelling viewing. The use of a lot of historical images and videos, both off and especially on stage, keeps the story perking along quite well. Some keen animation just adds to the honeypot.

As documentaries go, this one isn’t brilliant necessarily, but then again, it has no problem keeping interest up. After all, with all his foibles and questionable choices, HR is an interesting person even beyond the BB, who has managed a career in music in extreme conditions, both on the external and internal levels.

While there may be some who boycott viewing this for reasons I’ve mentioned, I would say it’s still worth checking out, even if with a grain of salt. HR is and was a key player in the punk scene for many years, and even for that alone this is historically good viewing.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

e.g., URBAN VERBS: D.C. City Sound [1980]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1980
Introduction text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

This article was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #5, dated August / September 1980, by Managing Editor Julia Masi.

The Urban Verbs released two albums on Warner Bros., and then broke up about a year after this was published. With a cult status and fans, they continue to occasionally get together for reunion gigs, mostly in D.C. – Robert Barry Francos, 2017.

On their recent East Coast tour, Roddy Franz, lyricist and singer of the Urban Verbs, sat in his room at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel smoking cigarettes and talking about the band’s music.

“I don’t mean this in an egotistical way,” he apologizes as he cites their music as “a little more thoughtful. It has a lot of integrity. We haven’t tried to deliberately commercialize.” Instead, the Urban Verbs have worked at presenting something that is artistically successful as well as entertaining. They strive for a “certain level of sophistication embodied in our music.”

But Franz is quick to shy away from descriptions that might label their music. “It’s rock’n’roll,” he explained, “Most of the other terms are just so nebulous at this point. I think at one point New Wave was distinguishable from punk, perhaps it still is, but New Wave itself has just become such a nebulous sort of journalistic handle, as ‘hippies’ was; it is no longer that clear. I would just like people to think of us as a rock’n’roll band.”

But the Urban Verbs is more than just an ordinary band. Although they’re not yet an overnight success, their career has taken off at a rather rapid pace. They have the rare distinction of originating in Washington, D.C., where Franz and composer-guitarist Robert Goldstein [d. 2016 – RBF], both natives of Pittsburgh, had been working in bands. Franz was with a group called the Controls and Goldstein was in the Look. Both bands broke up around the same time, so Franz and Goldstein teamed up to form a band that would eventually record. They picked up their drummer, Danny Frankel, bass player Linda France, and Robin Rose on synthesizer from a cover band that played at local parties. For a while, they billed themselves as the Special Guest Band before they changed their name to Urban Verbs.

In the summer of 1978, they came to New York to do a gig at CBGB. There they met Brian Eno, who produced their two-song demo. Their debut album, Urban Verbs, on Warner Bros. Records, is being well-received in Italy, London and Paris. It’s expected to do just as well here.

Lately, the band has been touring. They had the option of going out with another, possibly bigger name band, but prefer to go it alone on small regional tours. “We work better with a more intimate setting of 150 to 300 people. You get more than that and it just changes the nature of the performance.”

The group’s primary concern is their music. Franz stated, “I don’t think performers should necessarily be politicians or Bible thumpers. I think we, rather than trying to proselytize, create and give enough of an impression for people to make their own decisions. We don’t really have a single message we want to convey.”

Inspiration for songs “comes in different forms. Sometimes,” says Franz, “I’ll write simply because I think we need a new song. If you don’t always have something that you’re working on, you get stale. Other times people or situations will inspire me. ‘Tina Gray’ was written for my sister-in-law. Different things at different times. Being in love is good to write about.”

But on the opposite side of the coin, Franz has written “Luca Brasi,” for a character from the movie The Godfather, who “sleeps with the fishes,” Granz explained. “Luca was the Godfather’s personal bodyguard for 20 years. He got a knife through his hand and was dumped in the East River.” After recalling the scene in the film where a dead fish wrapped in newspaper was dropped off on the Corleone steps, Franz smiled with ha twinkle in his blue eyes and said, “I just thought it was a neat image.”

Friday, November 3, 2017

Photo Essay: Lecture by Dr. Eric McLuhan, St. Thomas More College, November 2, 2017

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2017
Title photo from St. Thomas More College Website

I've known Eric McLuhan and his son Andrew for a few years now, meeting up with them at Media Ecology Association conferences throughout the world. One would think that Eric would be stuck in the shadow of his father, Marshall, but for those of us who pay attention, he is a brilliant thinker in his own right.

Referencing Marshall, as we all do (and should), whether we realize it or not, Eric has risen to high academic circles on his own and risen to the academic stratosphere with his publications about media, religion, and culture in both solo projects as well as with others, such as a recent collaboration with Dr. Peter Zhang.

Eric comes across as a bit elfin and frail, walking with a cane and being soft-spoken, but I've also seen him give heck to other academics who he believes crosses the line of what he or his dad was positing in their writing, including recently with one who had collaborated with Marshall.

For this talk, his topic was "Catholicism and Communication: The Sensus Communis, Synesthesia, and the Soul." Marshall had famously adopted Catholicism in his adulthood, and raised his family in it, so it makes sense that this would be a topic Eric would cover on his talk for the 29th Annual Michael Keenan Memorial Lecture, in Father O'Donnell Auditorium, at St. Thomas More College, on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon.

As a non-Catholic, I still found it fascinating, and was happy to discuss it with him and Andrew at breakfast the next day.

[photo courtesy St. Thomas More College Website]

Eric McLuhan and Andrew McLuhan preparing.

Arul Kumaran, English Department Dean

Sarah Powrie, English Department Head



Tammy Marche, Associate Dean, Psychology Department

Friday, October 20, 2017

Making Computer Use a Bit Easier to Learn

You start here...
Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

In my daily job, I help train people on how to use computers, mostly using the Microsoft Suite, but I also do a class on Basic Computing and using the Internet and Email.

For the latter, many of the people who come in are nervous because the computing world is new for them. Many are also well over 30 years old, and this is a whole new world. It is part of my job to reassure them, and give them confidence.

Though it seems like it is anti-intuitive, one of the first thing I let them know is that it is okay to be frustrated. In truth, no matter how beginner you are, or how proficient on computers, odds are a couple of times a week you are going to want to throw the machine out a window. This is normal, and it’s not just you, it’s everyone. I once said this to my class while a new intern was at a computer in the room, looking at the screen. He is a coder at a high level, and he even built his own computer from scratch. When I uttered those words, without even looking at me, he nodded his head in agreement. The fact of the matter is, even though this is true, the end results are worth it.

I’ve had a number of older students who get frustrated and complain that their kids can use the computer with ease, and the younger ones lose patience with them. What I do is remind them that they are now the age their own parents were when they had to be taught the VCR. I say, “Remember how mad that made you feel? ‘All you have to do is hold down Play and Record at the same time!’ That’s what their kids are feeling now.” Computers are more complex than the video player/recorder, so that amps up the anxiety. But a new user doesn’t need to feel that.

The biggest mistake in learning any software is to only follow the instructions. To explain, I’d like to present a true story: when I was eight years old, my mother brought home a portable Royal brand typewriter she had bought at work. The thing weighed nearly as much as I did at the time. When I showed interest in the machine, she gave me an official practice book to type from, that stood up on its own, so you could flip the pages. It had the usual “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” and “The meeting with Mr. Johnson will be held at 1:00 PM” kinds of exercises.

Being a mere wisp of a lad, I found this to be quite boring, so instead, I started to type out song lyrics. I found that no matter how much I slowed it down in my head as I was typing, I could keep some sense of rhythm. I used Simon & Garfunkel, the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and whatever songs were either on the radio or the few Broadway show tunes LPs my parents had that I grew up on. This made it fun. When I was 10, I typed out the entire, “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, still one of my favorite short stories to this day.

This exercise helped to make the task enjoyable enough for me to keep doing it, until I was typing at 55 words per minute, which is not an easy feat on a manual typewriter when one is a mere child.

It is not, however, just in typing that this can be employed as a learning tool. For example, if you need to improve your Microsoft Word skills, create something of your own. I suggest building a letter to your friends and family to let them know how you are doing (sometimes known as a “year-end letter”). Then add a photo, some borders, play with the fonts and spacing, and make it “pop.”

One student was having trouble with Excel, so over the summer, he made a list of every fish he caught, which lake it was snagged, what lure was used, and the weight of the fish. By this process he figured out which lure in what lake caught the biggest fish. He personalized it and made it interesting for himself, and then understood the process.

This is also true for the Internet. While you’re looking for jobs, for example, check out the location of the company. Figure out the best route using a Maps program (e.g., Google Maps), go to the Street View and see what the front of the building looks like. If you want to start even easier, go to a search engine and type in the name of your favorite musician/band, or actor.  When you find what you are looking for, try the different tabs, such as Images, News and Videos. Try searching for your own name and see what comes up. This is actually important to see what is displayed if you are looking for a job, because in today’s technological culture, there is an ever better chance that the possible employer will search your name than not.

Once you start getting comfortable with the computer, you can think more on what you’re searching for than how you got there. Much like a flashy guitarist does not think about what is being playing note-by-note but rather the hands “know” instinctively where to go to get the next note, typing and searching becomes more natural and reflexive. This will transfer over to when you do a task for a job, and make your life a bit easier and gain you more confidence.

I have done this myself, as well. The way I figured out how to use Absolute References in an Excel formula (e.g., $B$4), I applied it to my time sheet while I was still technically on contract per class. Now I use a timesheet (not mine) to explain how the formula works to my classes. I did a similar thing with Pivot Tables. I was trying to figure out what goes into which of the four boxes, so I made a list of every record review I’ve had published from 1977 through 2011 (came to over 2500), by listing (a) the Band, (b) the Name of Record, (c) the Type, such as 12”, 7”, Cas, digi, (d) the Record Label, (e) which magazine/fanzine/website published it, and (f) the date of publication. Then I was able to make lists, for example, of every band from a particular label I reviewed, and the name of the releases. To learn Word’s Mail Merge feature? I created a list for sending out my Year-End letter, and I figured out how to do it quickly, and then personalize any one I wanted.

Once a user can understand how it works on a personal level, it makes it easier to use in a more professional setting, or explain it to others, not just to do it yourself. It truly is a use-it-or-lose-it situation, so it is also helpful to remember that teaching others is a good way to aid learning and remembering the steps for yourself.
...And end here!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

POLYROCK: In Search of Playful Seriousness [1981]

Text by Stacy Mantel / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981. It was written and conducted by then-FFanzeen Managing Editor, Stacy Mantel.

To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of Polyrock at the time, as I found them too…esoteric. The whole synthesizer/techno-guitar thing was lost of me, but Stacy was a big fan, hence the interview. I heard the albums back then, but never saw them live. However, I do have an indirect tale about them:

In the early 1980s, after this article appeared, I applied for a job as an Editor at a technology-based magazine, and was granted an interview. When I got there, I found out that it was produced by Al Goldstein [d. 2013], and the interview was in Screw Magazine’s office. The person interviewing me was the brother of a member of Polyrock. He knew who I was because of this piece, and said he was not going to give me the job as a favor to me, because having Screw Publications on a resume was not a plus, and Al was a hard person for whom to work. He did, however, show me Goldstein’s office, which was just packed with memorabilia. He warned me not to touch anything because despite the chaos, Goldstein knew if anything was moved. I thank him for that, even now, because he was absolutely correct.

As for Polyrock proper, they released two major-label albums on RCA, produced by Philip Glass, and disbanded a year after this interview was published, in 1982. Looking back, I can appreciate some of their releases more, such as “Bucket Rider,” but even today, the snyth/modulated material is still is not where my interest lies. – RBF, 2017

Polyrock is not unique, but then again, they are. It depends upon what angle you care to listen to them from, and how contaminated your musical background is.

Everyone is talking about them. Some are nervous, some elated, some speechless – but they are reacting. Polyrock themselves are doing the least talking. They are modest experimenters, trying to be a little different. Polyrock is: Billy Robertson, guitar / vocals; Tommy Robertson, lead guitar / electronics / violin; Lenny Aaron, keyboards; Curt Cosentino, bass machine / synthesizer; Joseph Yannece, drums / percussion / vocals; and Catherine Oblansey, vocals / percussion.

I spoke with Billy Robertson at the Rock Lounge, Saturday, February 28 of this year. He is very amiable and neat, and smiles freely. When we spoke, a lot of sentences were left open where words could not express certain artistic aims; sensibilities. For coherence, I had to punctuate in my mind and on paper. Personally, they’re probably best left unclosed, because in that, there is more understanding.

FFanzeen: In The [Village] Voice, John Picarella compared your sound to geometric paintings a la Mondrian. But when I listen to your music, I don’t think of harsh, stark lines; I feel it’s more impressionistic and imageful. What do you feel?
Billy Robertson: Well, it’s really hard to make a comparison to paintings or that kind of art, but I see it more as impressionistic. It’s also an immediate type of thing too, because it isn’t painting. Although when you go into the studio, you make a record and it’s a piece, but when it’s written, it’s sort of an act of aggression. The thing is to capture a live moment; an experience.

FFanzeen: What do you mean by “act of aggression”?
Billy: It’s a weird word – it’s a performance. I don’t mean aggressive as a negative or positive act of aggression or anything like that, but putting out something immediate – something with a certain amount of intensity. And it’s a performance. To answer your question more specifically, it’s more impressionistic than mechanical.

FFanzeen: It’s felt mostly on “Your Dragging Feet.”
Billy: Oh, yeah.

FFanzeen: It’s very hypnotic, almost like a mantra, because it’s somewhat repetitive.
Billy: It’s packaged sort of in a form; it has levels. It’s a very pretty song to me.

FFanzeen: The systems approach and Philip Glass’ music deals with similar types of repetition and levels.
Billy: That song has a lot more of that mode or side of us than any other song, and I think it’s something we really want to do; even in short pieces, and not so much a trance-piece, but something that’s very subtle and right there with the instrumentals. Some of the new stuff would make this clearer to you. That type of writing style started, for me anyway, when I listened to Brian Eno; I heard it in the Beatles and John Lennon songs like “I Am the Walrus.” And that’s what I like about Philip. When I first heard him I appreciated the repetition. He was an influence, but he was more someone we liked and respected. We really didn’t see his music as being part of our music. I can really like jazz or other kinds of music, but I play my music, and it just has been coming more and more. I just identify with Philip so much. I think he identifies with us, but he knows that we’re making pop music and we’re in a different medium.

FFanzeen: How did that collaboration come about? Was it on your mind or –
Billy: It did enter my mind, but I didn’t see it as becoming a fact. I never thought it would become a fact because I didn’t picture Philip to be what he is, as open-minded and just as versatile because he listens to all kinds of things. He makes music that’s his music.

FFanzeen: Do you see Polyrock trying to bridge the gap between that kind of music and pop rock’n’roll?
Billy: Yeah, I think subconsciously. We’re trying to make a serious sort of musical type of music; not just an occasion. A dance band. That’s definitely on our minds and that is an aspect of our music. We really like John Cage and people like that, their aspect of music, but we also enjoy playing for people and dancing. So, we’re trying not to be that, as many writers said, “serious.”

FFanzeen: You’ve had a lot of problems with the critics about that aspect of being serious. Some have asked, “How can a pop band have that in their musical or personality makeup”?
Billy: Well, it’s in the personality. I think it’s a real special thing. That’s what keeps me going. I see it developing more and more for us. Sort of like bridging that gap. I wouldn’t say so much as the repetitious thing or the minimalistic thing because I don’t think Philip Glass is minimalist.

FFanzeen: I don’t think so either. Minimal is an Andy Warhol film.
Billy: “Grey Canvas” is minimal.

FFanzeen: When you’re putting music together, do you take concrete ideas and put one after the other, or do you use the kind of random approach that Eno takes with his systems pieces?
Billy: I think that when I write, I hear where it’s going. I can sit down with an acoustic guitar and play it. Well, it’s sort of a systems approach because I’m doing other people. I know what Lenny, as a keyboard player, will reflect into the song, and I know what Curt will. And I have an idea what my brother will do – he would definitely write his piece to it. But the others, even though I’m writing the melodies and injecting it to them, I can already see what they’re going to do. When I play with just an acoustic, I usually do the melodies with my voice, and it’s weird because you keep the melody in that part of your head and you write another melody, or you get someone to team up with you. There’s so many things we have to stay away from when we write, Tommy and I. We try not to keep Blues progressions out of it and funk feelings. We’re trying to start with these very sterile sort of holes and these melodies. Mechanically, that’s what we start with. But, we’re trying. I think we’re very emotional. I think we’re trying to inject that, so the emphasis is not on funk, because what’s soul? That isn’t soul. We can have soul in our music.

FFanzeen: Well, not having a bass is almost an anti-funk idea.
Billy: I’m not anti-funk. I mean, I love it. I find it more challenging not to work with, because it’s very easy to me. It’s because we have to stay away from these things. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to grow into something where we wouldn’t have to sit around here and try to explain it. It’ll just be this type of music that came through a process; but it’s just a process of trying to strip down and get away from all these things that have been done; all these different modes. I mean, it’s been 25 years since rock came about and pop music still sounds the same way. You can make it different and change it into a different shape, but it’s still the same medium. And funk’s been around and African music has been around. Sometimes I think it’s a crazy thing to do [smiles] but if it can work and we can do it, good. It’s a romantic thing to do, laying yourself on the line; but it’s an experiment. We can fall flat on our faces, and we’ll just turn around and try it a different way. I don’t think that I’ll ever put together a band that’ll be accepted right away. I don’t think any of us would. We would try to do something that had space for growing.

FFanzeen: Groups like Visage and Spandau Ballet are working with computers that go beyond a synthesized bass; they’re computerizing a beat. People are saying you are electronic. Isn’t that a bit off-base?
Billy: I think that when using all synthesizer and rhythm generators, I see that sound as getting too homogenized, too packaged too quickly. I think that just working with guitars is more of an inside thing. I see that kind of electronic music as getting too sterile. Like Gary Numan. I liked his first record, but he got too sterile. The overall sound is too formulated.

FFanzeen: That’s what I meant, because those people are just programming in the entire thing and they’re called inhuman.
Billy: Well, that’s supposed to sound inhuman. I look back on this record and there are reservations, because the fact that we have a serious edge doesn’t give us room to be playful.

FFanzeen: What’s your definition of “serious”? The B-52s take themselves seriously.
Billy: Yeah, I can think that, too. I could ask myself, “What is the definition of ‘serious’?” And I think it’s totally absurd to think that way, but obviously there is a whole overall thing that is looked at as serious and something that’s looked at as playful. It’s not my definition though. If I really stop to think about it, it’s just a type of seriousness where you have an attitude of just like when you make a piece, it could be a serious piece, something that you’re really thinking about and really trying to make different, but also trying to be very pretty and aesthetic in a sense; something that’s not as playful, because if something’s not playful, what else can it be?

FFanzeen: You mentioned new material. What stage is that at now?
Billy: It’s at the stage where we have five or six songs down – not all at the performing stage, though. We’ve been working. We’ve been to London, and we’re going to Baltimore. When we get back, I just want to go back up to our house [in historic Woodstock], and get these things down. We want to get back into the studio to make another album the end of March.

FFanzeen: Will Philip Glass produce the next album?
Billy: I think he will. It all depends on what the circumstances are, who we’ll be working with. I see him as another member of the band with just a smaller part. He doesn’t produce it; he’s not about that. And that’s what I was talking about – one of the reservations about going into the studio again. Because we want somebody who’s going to be more sensitive to the rock’n’roll aspects of it.

FFanzeen: Let’s get some more background. Before Polyrock, you played with the Model Citizens for a while. What was Tommy doing?
Billy: This was the first time he became visual, and marketed what he does. Before that he made tapes and has a collection of his own tapes which may be marketed someday. He’s been working mostly on his own music. This is more of something which we’re trying to create. It’s not what we’re about. Right now, we have this thing and it’s a band. We’re using our personae. We’re using the look. It’s a lot more than just making music. I think if Tommy was to write music for himself, he would explore a lot more different things; more subtle things, and not be so accessible to himself. That’s what I’m into doing.

FFanzeen: Aren’t you afraid to explore so soon?
Billy: Yeah. It definitely takes some time, and it’s good for me. I don’t think it’s a compromise. I think that we’re going to get to the point where we’ll be ready to do it, and we’ll know better how to do it, and we’ll learn what directions we really like and want to go into. But I think there’s a different attitude. A more spread-out kind of experimenting. Next album, I’m going back to bass on a couple of tunes. On the first record, for some reason, I just wanted to get away from electric bass. Maybe now I can incorporate it into our sound, because we’re starting to get a good idea of what we’re doing.

FFanzeen: How long were you in the studio recording the album?
Billy: About a month and a half.

FFanzeen: Did you have anything to do with the ad campaign RCA launched, with “Polyvinyl, Polyrock of the Future”?
Billy: No, not at all. Did it seem like any of us did? I hope it’s clear to most people that we had nothing to do with it. We really hated it, but I’m not going to turn around and say “RCA stinks.” They just got a little away from us.

FFanzeen: Polyrock is the best name you could have come up with; it’s so descriptive.
Billy: We thought it had a nice sound, also.

FFanzeen: What about this “dance-trance” business? It’s applied to other groups too, such as the Bush Tetras, and you two bands couldn’t be further apart.
Billy: It’s obviously not an adequate description of the music. Even more general is the term “New Wave,” which really freaks me out because Blondie is supposed to be New Wave and even Talking Heads, because they made it through the same packaging, the same channels. So I just have to say when people ask me what kind of music we play, it’s “Polyrock.” We’re making it that and that’s what we called it.