Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Song of the Day: Bloodrock's 'D.O.A'

Reason number 54,233 to appreciate Satellite Radio.

XM's Seventies on Seven channel, like all of XM's spots on the dial, frequently augments the usual familiar Bell-Bottom Era fixtures with obscurities from lesser-known acts and one-hit wonders. That a Satellite station can gift a big old music geek like me with a Top-40 hit from the seventies that I've never heard before--never mind a hit this unsettling and strange--is a very, very good thing.

Bloodrock was a Texas hard rock band from the early seventies, and their lone entry into the lower rungs of the Billboard Top 40 (number 36, to be exact) was this eight-and-a-half minute dirge describing a plane-crash victim's final minutes in excruciating, amazing detail. With its foreboding organ, vivid lyrics ("The sheets are red and moist where I'm lying, God in Heaven teach me how to die"), and lead singer Jim Rutledge's soaring, anguished vocals, 'D.O.A' packs a body blow more potent than any ten death metal tracks. It also prefigures the Goth Music movement by a good seven years. You can hear an audio sample at Allbutforgottenoldies.net.

It's a wonderful universe in which a bunch of shaggy-maned Lynyrd Skynyrd lookalikes can beat Bauhaus to the Doom Rock punch by a country mile.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Happy Birthday, Lord Summerisle

Christopher Lee, probably the last great living horror movie icon, celebrates his 84th birthday today (May 27). And there's no better way to celebrate the man's golden years than by watching one of his greatest efforts.

For years, Lee has professed his ferocious, passionate devotion and fondness for The Wicker Man, a 1973 film in which the actor lends his singular presence in a small but pivotal role (it's out on Anchor Bay DVD). In a lot of ways, it's easy to see why.

Broad and literal horror films like the output of Hammer Studios defined the genre in the early seventies. The Wicker Man presented a scenario that was the polar opposite, giving Lee the opportunity to play a charming, almost jaunty character that effectively subverted his traditional screen persona, all in the service of a leisurely but still uneasy mystery framework. I don't know if I'd call it "'The Citizen Kane' of Horror Films," as one overzealous Cinefantastique critic enthused, but this subtle and offbeat little film manages to cast a unique spell that transcends easy pigeonholes.

It's essentially a single-minded mystery in which Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a mainland policeman, investigates the disappearance of a young woman from Summerisle, a small Scottish island. Howie very quickly discovers that the island's residents are practicing pagans, and that the young woman's disappearance is not what it seems.

Anthony Shaffer's screenplay pivots on one particular twist, the type of classic denouement that episodic TV like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (to say nothing of modern equivalents like The Sixth Sense and the cult television hit, Lost)used vigorously. A lot of films and TV shows that spring this type of twist on you grow instantly stale once they yield their secret. But The Wicker Man's shelf life remains solid even when the final revelation rears its head.

Without hurling any spoilers out there, suffice it to say Shaffer's screenplay and Robin Hardy's restrained, almost deceptively prosaic directorial hand gradually lay out an atmosphere of mounting unease that works, even when you know what's coming around the corner.

The residents of Summerisle seem like the kind of laid-back rural types that exist in every country's backwoods, frozen in time and lazily welcoming. But as one's presence in their midst increases, their weirdness unpeels like skin from an onion. And in classic 70's fashion, Howie--a devout Christian--finds his own faith put up against that of these smiling-but-still-unsettling heathens.

Woodward (best known as TV's Equalizer) plays Howie with equal parts outraged inflexibility and sympathetic vulnerability--he's an unlikely yet believeable focal point for the viewer. And despite it's one-note Big Twist Ending, The Wicker Man's screenplay works on several different levels--it's a meditation on the futility and the destructive capability of sexual abstinence, a none-too-subtle dissection of Christianity, a symbolic portrayal of man's need for order in an orderless world, a solid labyrinthian mystery, and a gradual Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style paranoid thriller. This was my third go-around with The Wicker Man, and it still works on me.
Then there's Lee, never better. Most of his great roles were nourished by his glowering charisma and intensity: here, he's the most relaxed of souls, running his island with a mellow good humor that utterly camouflages his intentions (to Howie, at least). He's funny as hell, and never topples into tongue-in-cheekdom, even when he's running around in crude drag like Gertrude the Clown in the final twenty minutes. Now, THAT'S some kind of horror icon.

Friday, May 26, 2006

White Hot Weekend Action!

The good news is, if you're here in Seattle, I've got two fabulous recommendations for entertainment this long weekend.

The bad news is, they're both on the same night.

You've heard me blather about the mighty Bloodhag before, but their gig tomorrow night at the Funhouse (with Captured! By Robots) promises to be extra-super-special. The 'Hag's unstoppable Edu-core sound have won 'em a deal with Alternative Tentacles, the internationally-known record label run by the legendary Jello Biafra. And tomorrow's gig also serves as the release party for their sure-to-be mindroasting new CD, Hell Bent for Letters. Soon the world will be jumping on the Hagwagon, so get out and see these four bespectacled noise gods in a great, tiny, sweaty place before they're playing arenas and eating caviar from the navels of Cimmerian Slave Women at Clive Davis's place.

Then again, you could take in an evening of the blues, courtesy of Steven Seagal. Yes, the star of Under Siege, The Glimmer Man, and Half Past Dead brings his blues band to the Tractor Tavern tomorrow night. The high-kicking (OK, maybe not so much nowadays) action fixture sings more consistently than fellow R&B lover/tough guy Bruce Willis (take a listen here). But I don't figure BB King is sweating over the competition just yet.

My advice: catch Bloodhag, than jet over to the Tractor Tavern after the 'Hag's set. Wait outside the Tractor until Seagal finishes performing, then confront him after the show with the revelation that you could easily best his doughy ass with your Monkey Fist Kung Fu. Seagal loves it when people do that—trust me.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Doug McClure Kicks Monster Ass, Saves World

Englishman Kevin Connor cut a significant swath in the mid-70's by directing a very entertaining quartet of fantasy films largely based on the works of celebrated Tarzan scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs.

These four little programmers were all period pieces set in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, and they all followed the same basic pattern. A clutch of explorers/innocent bystanders would find their exploring/innocent-bystanding rudely interrupted by a gaggle of not-so-nice parties (German u-boat crewmen, greedy Yankee sailors, etc.), and the whole mess of conflicting humanity would end up deep in the bowels of some Prehistoric Lost World. Said Lost World would usually be populated by cavemen, unkempt enslaved native peoples, and so many frickin' monsters your head'd spin, especially if you were a Raisinet-huffing kid at the Parkland Theater in the Bell-Bottom Era. Budgetary limitations kept the special effects pretty crude (the dinosaur puppets and monster suits on display were a far cry from the Ray Harryhausen fantasies that provided the series' most obvious inspiration). But the movies still packed plenty of old-school fun and thrills.

The leading man of choice for the director--the Toshiro Mifune to Kevin Connor's Akira Kurosawa, if you will--was American leading man Doug McClure, previously a star of the long-running TV western, The Virginian. Possessed with an enormous lantern jaw (he looked like some Mad magazine cartoonist's idea of a handsome leading man), great sideburns, and an appealing combination of conviction and self-deprecating humor, the actor forged a comfortable niche in the Connor fantasies.

McClure's characters were smart enough to pilot or construct newfangled contraptions like U-Boats or giant drilling machines, yet macho enough to kick the crap out of any number of bad guys, monsters, or dinosaurs by the time the end credits rolled. Ironically, McClure's legacy endures thanks largely to Matt Groenig, who paid affectionate tribute to the late actor by partially patterning The Simpsons' B-movie stud Troy McClure after him.

Of the four Kevin Connor period fantasies, three are readily available on home video in the US. The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and its 1977 sequel, The People That Time Forgot, appeared on an economical MGM/UA DVD double feature a couple of years back. And At the Earth's Core--the second Connor/McClure collaboration, 1976 vintage--likewise surfaced more recently on another MGM/UA double bill (opposite the inconsequential-but-fun Vincent Price/Roger Corman opus, War Gods of the Deep).

1978's Warlords of Atlantis, on the other hand, possesses no Edgar Rice Burroughs pedigree and has remained the most stubbornly elusive of the series (it's never even surfaced on domestic video or DVD), so Seattle's Grand Illusion Theater is doing nerds like me an invaluable service by screening Warlords on Friday and Saturday late nights (the final two screenings'll be on May 19 and 20). Last weekend I saw this rare fantasy epic for the first time since age eleven, and it inspired a marathon re-appraisal of all of the Connor/McClure collaborations.

The first third of The Land that Time Forgot plays as an extremely effective straight thriller, tautly co-written by sci-fi novelist Michael Moorcock. A German U-boat sinks a British supply ship during World War I, and a small group of the supply ship's survivors (led by McClure, natch) manage to overtake the U-Boat. Through a combination of compass-tampering and bad luck, all parties end up on an evolutionary Petri Dish of a lost island bristling with dinosaurs. In addition to a strong script, Land also sports the series' best special effects and a sterling supporting turn from the underrated John McEnery (Mercutio in Zeffarelli's classic 1968 screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) as the cerebral and conflicted U-boat captain.

Another fine British actor--genre stalwart Peter Cushing--enlivens At the Earth's Core, the second Burroughs adaptation from the Connor/McClure team. Cushing plays doddering scientist to McClure's rough-and-tough explorer, and both make an unlikely and engaging team. The duo pilots an 'Iron Mole' drill/tank that veers out of control, spiking through to the center of the earth into Pellucidar, another tropical lost world populated by--you guessed it--heaps of monsters and unkempt natives (the most exotic of the natives, Caroline Munro, lends exotic suport as McClure's love interest).

Core began a trend towards a lighter touch, and it's a good thing. His budget considerably leaner, Connor and his technical crew made do with some of the most laughably unconvincing creatures to hit the screen in the seventies (and with this series, that's saying a lot), but if anything, the patently silly rubber beasts that go toe-to-claw with McClure add to the fun.

The People that Time Forgot (Land's direct sequel) continues the overtly pulpy tack, with a strong-jawed major (Patrick Wayne) journeying back to the first film's Lost World to rescue McClure's Bowen Tyler character from the first film. It's basically one non-stop chase and rescue sequence, sort of a low-rent but entertaining precursor to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, only with dinosaurs. Blessedly, neither of the leading ladies--willowy Sarah Douglas (of Superman II fame) and buxom Dana Gillespie--is nearly as annoying as Kate Capshaw.

I hadn't seen Warlords of Atlantis since its original 1978 release, so I was curious as to how my baggy ol' grown-up eyes would view it. Final analysis: It's not the best of the quartet (that honor goes to the first one), but it's unequivocally the strangest, and well worth a peek.

This time, McClure builds a diving bell and he and his scientist pal Charles (Peter Gilmore) use it to explore the depths of the Bermuda Triangle. Through circumstances far too amusingly convoluted to summarize neatly here, they end up cut loose from their ship by the boat's greedy crew; then they and a portion of that greedy crew get abducted by a giant octopus and dragged down to the lost underwater continent of Atlantis.

The weirdness scale shoots through the roof once McClure and company arrive at the Lost Continent. In contrast to the usual stone-age shenanigans, Atlantis' ruling citizens hail from Mars, so they all sport shiny metallic tunics and Prince Valiant wigs except for queen Cyd Charisse (yes, THAT Cyd Charisse), who accents her spangly gam-flattering gown with clear platform pumps and what appears to be a puli on her head.

Kevin Connor's last foray into Doug McClure monster ass-kicking also works in elements of the old George Pal fantasy Atlantis The Lost Continent, a dash of Sunn Classics Pictures Bermuda Triangle conjecture, the visual sense of the Bee Gees' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, some not-so-veiled homosexual overtones between McClure and Gilmore, and John Ratzenberger as one of the greedhead sailors. And if the thought of seeing Cheers' Cliff Clavin getting felt up by a giant octopus doesn't fill you with unbridled joy, you're poking around the wrong Blog, bucky.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Car Tunes

After pumping three times the Blue Book Value into repairs on it in just a few weeks, the missus and I finally decided to rid ourselves of our beleaguered old jalopy (a '94 Ford Taurus, affectionately named The Green Hornet). The plunge was taken, and we bought a new car.

Rita and I did a lot of research (and a lot of test-driving), and we decided to get a 2006 Chevy HHR, sunburst metallic orange. For the uninitiated, the HHR is a retro-roadster, styled after a 1947 wagon. Kind of like a PT Cruiser, only vastly superior in nearly every way (I should know, I test-drove 'em both).

The HHR gets respectable mileage for an un-sensible looking car, it's sturdily-and-safely-built, versatile, cool-looking, and the ride is the automotive equivalent of a soak in a hot tub; smooth and comfy. The wife, the dog, and I all give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Most importantly, however, the new vehicle's audio system kicks serious ass. The hell with the side impact airbags; I'm in Music Nerd Heaven with every commute.

The Hornet's car stereo consisted of an AM/FM radio, and a two-sided cassette player. One side of said deck played like watery death, and the machine resolutely refused to rewind or fast-forward tapes. The Taurus also possessed the original twelve-year old factory speakers (you could hear the paper cones rattle inside when you cranked it--a nice white-trash touch).

So I greeted our lovely new car's magnificent seven-speaker Pioneer CD player with a combination of awe and joy akin to a caveman discovering fire for the first time. It's roof-rattlingly terrific, and my Rip Van Winkly arse still thrills to the high-tech sensation of inserting a CD into the slot, and being able to zip from track to track with a push of a button on the steering wheel.

The stereo needed to be christened with CD's, of course, so through a combination of circumstance and master planning, the following recordings made the cut first:

Tom Jones' Reload (gushed over previously on these electronic pages). The first CD to grace the new car's sound system. Hearing The Man's Mountain-of-God baritone in crystalline seven-speaker glory is like seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a 70mm cinema screen after watching it for years on a 12" black-and-white TV. A mutual programming choice.

David Bowie, Hunky Dory: Perhaps the finest longplayer ever from a man who's put out more diverse and essential platters than any twelve normal artists. We spun the Ryko reissue, with its slew of bonus tracks. Mutual Choice.

Cheap Trick: their first, um, five albums, lovingly remastered and reissued with heaps of extra tracks by Epic Records--a Me choice to rock the sunroof off. My delusional wife somehow can't understand that Cheap Trick are the best American rock band of the seventies, and one of the most influential outfits ever. Yeah, I'll hammer home this topic with my customary windy tenaciousness in a future Blog...

Meat Loaf, Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through CD single: selected by the missus for its three--count 'em, three--mixes of the arena-rock megahit, "I Would Do Anything for Love". Rita lives for the Loaf's irrepressably hammy brand of pomp rock; I gotta cop to a guilty fondness for the stuff, too. Jim Steinman's overflowing chocolate sundae songwriting and production is tailor-made for a big-ass sound system, dude.

Guitar Wolf, Planet of the Wolves: Nothin' squeezes every last drop of LOUD out of a stereo like Japan's mightiest garageabilly monsters. Mutual choice.

The Mission UK, Grains of Sand: Mostly a Rita choice, but I dig 'em, too. For all the Mish's faults, their combination of U2-gone-dark guitar swirliness and high melodrama sounds mighty sweet on a real stereo. Wayne Hussey's cavernous baritone makes him perhaps Britpop's ultimate mack daddy of the eighties: Barry White for Goth chicks.

GS I Love You Too: A terrific compilation of mid-'60's Japanese Guitar Sounds (garage rock) from Big Beat Records. Spunky, catchy as hell, joyously energetic, and perfect for a retro-styled vehicle. Mutual choice.

Isaac Hayes, Ultimate Isaac Hayes--Can You Dig It? (two-disc set): He's a bad mutha; shut yo' mouth and give in to the liquid grooves of Black Moses, back before he became one with the evil hordes of Xenu. Any human being behind the wheel of a new car instantly transforms into a penultimate badass when the theme from Shaft chugs onto a good sound system. Mutual Choice.

Pulp, We Love Life: Jarvis Cocker was, arguably, the best pop lyricist to emerge from Britain in the '90's, and this excellent record wraps his tart, neurotically urbane wit around a lushly organic production by cult icon Scott Walker. Me Choice.

Great as it is to spin one's own tuneage on the car stereo, though, XM Satellite Radio (three free months of which came with the new ride) has seriously cut into our CD-listening time. If you're a music addict, Satellite Radio is some seriously high-grade Black-Tar heroin.

Before getting a free hit of this Sonic Smack, I thought of satellite radio as another arm of the Evil Empire that is corporate media (I know, like regular FM radio isn't the same damned thing). If the powers behind XM really are just Big Corporate Pawns, though, they're sure doing something right. XM features about 200 different channels, each with a specific format--there are the obligatory 'Decades' channels (i.e, Forties music, Fifties music, Sixties music, etc.), as well as genre-centric spots on the dial like blues stations, world music, alternative rock, etc.

The clincher here is that the people (or machines) programming these channels deliver an impressively dense collection of material on each channel. Rather than inundate its airwaves, for example, with the same eighteen 'classic oldies' that've been beaten to death eight times over by FM oldies stations, XM's Sixties on 6 pulls out lesser-known tracks by familiar figures--it's a kick to hear a great pop song by The Turtles that's NOT "Happy Together"--and original, full-length versions of better-known hits (The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today", with its full-length psychedelic freak-out guitar solo). Their many other formatted stations follow a similarly carefully-crafted and off-the-beaten track path.

In my first hour of XM, I heard Leadbelly, German metal mavens Accept (doing the thuggishly brilliant '84 headbanger, "Balls to the Wall"), a French punk rock band called Wide Load, excerpts from Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, Alien Sex Fiend, Kay Kyser, a prime bit of vintage blaxploitation soul from Willie Hutch's soundtrack for Foxy Brown, The Bee Gees, Bill Monroe, and The Prisonaires, all with a quick twist of the dial. Unless you catch an indie/college radio station like Seattle's KEXP on a really good night, you will never, ever get this type of diversity out of the mainstream FM radio bandwidth.

XM, like any good dope peddler, counts on free samples to get folks hooked. And when they ask us for real money, you can bet Rita and I will be hocking most of our earthly goods (excepting the car, natch) to keep that spike in our veins.