Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: 'Hero A-Go-Go: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters & Culture of the Swinging Sixties'


Adam West took a lot of guff for turning the Dark Knight into the batusi-ing goof, but for a lot of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies, the camped-up Batman of Bill Dozier’s weekly live-action series was our Batman. And to be fair, Batman had been a pretty campy dude in the funny books since comics-critic Frederic Wertham brought the whip down in the early fifties. But while Batman’s on-page goofiness lost him a fair share of followers, his on-screen goofiness won him a new generation of fanatics weaned on Warhol soup cans, zany Mod fashions, and Beatle wigs. Thus began a new era of vibrant, winking irony former DC Comics editor Michael Eury champions as the Camp Age.

In his delirious new book Hero-A-Go-Go, Eury shows that this era was actually well underway before Batman powed TVs across the globe. The goofy/groovy Teen Titans with their out-of-touch beat-speak and Archie’s caped alter ego Pureheart both debuted in mid-’65. On TV, Underdog blasted off as early as 1964 and Bob Kane himself sent-up the thing he created with Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse four years earlier than that.

There was no stopping campy crime fighters after Dozier’s Batman became a sensation in ’66. Soon TV was hosting The Green Hornet, Ralph Bakshi’s inept Mighty Heroes, Mr. Terrific and Mr. Nice, and Monkee Men; comics were home to MAD’s Captain Klutz and DC’s Inferior Five; Jan and Dean were releasing a long playing Batman record; and perhaps more coincidentally, Superman was singing and dancing on Broadway in a show called It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! Of course, Batman, is the axle on which all this stuff swings, and Hero-A-Go-Go includes an extended look at how that classic came to be.

Eury covers the high-camp comics, cartoons, and other pop-cultural creations that preceded and followed Batman with jolly prose and eyeball-POW-ing images of comics and memorabilia, because you simply cannot wallow in nostalgia with words alone. He also supplements the story with boffo interviews with Bakshi, Lost in Space-star Billy Mumy, It’s a Bird… star Bob Holiday, Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean, and others who helped camp it up in the sixties.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review: 'My British Invasion'


Amidst the pot-scented denim gravity of the early-seventies Rock press, journalist Harold Bronson must have been a refreshing rarity. While the scribes were oohing and aahing over lofty ideas and classical musicianship, Bronson apparently wanted nothing more than to groove to Paul Revere and the Raiders and chat with Peter Noone. That combination of seriousness about the music industry and completely unpretentious music tastes led Bronson to co-found Rhino Records, the ultra-cool reissue label responsible for helping The Monkees make their big eighties comeback and eventually achieve the critical approval they always deserved. In his new memoir, My British Invasion, Bronson admits without a trace of self-consciousness that he wished he could have done the same for Herman’s Hermits. I don’t care if you think “I’m Henry the VIII (I Am)” is twelve pounds of Velveeta—that’s pretty endearing.

Bronson is generally at his most endearing when discussing the British Invasion bands he loved and interviewed during the seventies, which he does in profile chapters devoted to the Hermits, Yardbirds, Kinks, Manfred Mann, Dave Clark Five, Hollies, Zombies, and others of their mop-toppy ilk. Interviews with key band members are the stock in most of these chapters, though unscrupulous ex-manager Larry Page is the only one extensively quoted in the Kinks one. Fortunately, Page also stars in the book’s funniest recollection when he attempts to fool Bronson into thinking he has in his possession a tape of the real Beatles recording dialogue for the delightfully cheesy Beatles cartoon TV series.

Bronson’s interviewees are interesting and the simplicity of his old-fashioned, pre-serious-rock press writing fits his band profiles fine. Marc Bolan provides enough zing for both himself and Bronson in a late 1971 rap session, and the infuriating nature of Bronson’s dealings with Dave Clark still booms through clearly despite the author’s refusal to get worked up about it. That neutral style does not suit his more personal, diary-like chapters as well, which read as flat and choppy and contain too many details about his own band and personal romances to interest the majority of readers who will likely buy their tickets to this show because of its big-name attractions. These readers will probably also be well familiar with the basic British Invasion history that Bronson spends too much time rehashing, but there are enough enlightening bits to make My British Invasion a fitfully interesting read for the mop tops of today.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: 'Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums 1966-1970'


LSD has a tendency to confuse the senses, so it’s no coincidence that pop’s most acid-soaked years birthed its most visual music. The late sixties’ psychedelic discs often came housed in fluorescent, marvelously garish sleeves, but nothing more than the sounds in the grooves was necessary to paint multicolor images in listener’s minds. Sgt. Pepper’s, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Disraeli Gears, Axis: Bold As Love, and The Doors are among the most celebrated of these trippy masterworks, but as Richard Morton Jack hips us with his new book Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums 1966-1970, there was a lot more happening in the acid era.

Frankly, I am ashamed to admit how puny a percentage of Morton Jack’s picks I’ve heard, but I will admit that’s a good thing. Any book of this sort is useless without recommending unfamiliar music, and the hunt was on after reading the write ups on obscurities such as The David’s majestic Another Day, Another Lifetime, The Millennium’s sunny and wonderful  Begin, and The Fallen Angels’ haunting (though not exceptionally psychedelic)  It’s a Long Way Down. Yes, I missed inclusion of personal favorites such as The Monkees’ Head, The Rascals’ Once Upon a Dream, Shine on Brightly by Procol Harum, and The Who Sell Out (which received similar short shrift in another recent Sterling Publishing publication), but of course, I’ve already heard those albums. Still, Morton Jack’s details are intriguing enough that I may have learned a thing or two about these old favorites had he decided to include them.

Each entry follows a similar format beginning with a bit of background history, details about and critique of the given album (no, the author does not love every album he selects), quotes from participants, and excerpts from period reviews. I wasn’t aware that The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow and Love’s Forever Changes—two widely acclaimed classics now—were so poorly received in their days. We also get a slew of large-scale, full-color images of the genre’s vibrant album covers, which may explain why such pics were missing from that other recent Sterling book to which I referred earlier. Illuminating and suitably visual, Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums is a coffee table book that may inspire you to substitute that cup of coffee with something “a bit more potent.”*

*I’m talking about acid. You might want to take some acid while reading this book.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: 'Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies'


I enjoy chugging a nostalgia cocktail of The Breakfast Club or Better off Dead as much as any other eighties brat, but I can’t say I’ve ever yearned to visit Shermer, Illinois, or Greendale, California. So I didn’t expect the location-centric premise of Kevin Smokler’s new book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies to be a big wow. However, Smokler uses the physical and temporal settings of the films he swiftly analyzes as a means to get into themes and concerns that extend beyond mere zip codes. And when you think about it, the Rockwellian ideal of Kingston Falls that serves as the setting of the gremlins’ rampage in Gremlins or the dead-end dreariness of Milpitas, California, where a teen nihilistically murders his girlfriend in River’s Edge are essential to those film’s unique states of mind. Smokler convincingly suggests that Reagan’s love of Back to the Future had less to do with Marty McFly’s match-making exploits than it had to do with the conservative’s-wet-dream setting of 1950s Hill Valley.

Smokler’s entertaining, non-academic tone makes his travelogue as entertaining as a viewing of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, though the trip is a bit too speedy at times. I could have spent more time in some of these locales even as I realize that the author’s decision to cover as many films as he does necessitates such accelerated velocity. Along with the usual bumper crop of John Hughes movies there are less typical items such as Over the Edge, Hairspray, and Stand by Me, as well as key proto-eighties teen movies such as American Graffiti, The Warriors, and Breaking Away. I didn’t always agree with his assessments (I think he overstates the racism of Gremlins and understates the racism of Sixteen Candles, for example), but I consistently enjoyed the journey, which he makes more fun by picking up bitchin’ hitchhikers such as Savage Steve Holland, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, and Daniel Waters for little side trip interviews along the way.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review: '1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love'


The intriguing progress Rock & Roll started displaying as soon as The Beatles busted out in 1964 hit an ecstatic, elastic, multi-colored peak three years later. Any existing rules were incinerated as the pop song busted well beyond its two-minute structure, guitars were regularly muscled aside to make room for Mellotrons and sitars, and love songs were often sidelined for tunes based on Joyce’s impenetrable Ulysses or ditties about gnomes named Grimble Crumble. The LP officially displaced the single; stereo started doing the same to mono, making way for the ritual of consuming high-concept albums through headphones…possibly while under various influences; and bland band portraits plastered onto jackets no longer sufficed. In other words, Rock & Roll became art with a vengeance in 1967.

Harvey Kubernik pays tribute to the auditory and visual arts of ’67’s revolutionary music in his new book 1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love. That title is actually misleading unless one regards 1967 as twelve months of summer—and the Californians Kubernik favors probably did. The book is actually a month-by-month chronicle from January through December, dropping details about the year’s major music releases, festivals, innovations, main characters, and attitudes in stand-alone chunks. The book is also something of an oral history, as Kubernik’s own observations are more than supplemented with old and new commentary from the likes of Andrew Loog Oldham, Mary Wilson, George Harrison, Barry Miles, Michelle Phillips, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Roger McGuinn, Ravi Shankar, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Ram Das, Ray Manzarek, and many others. There is little effort to link the multitudinous topics, but that’s to be expected when dealing with a year that was probably a puzzling jumble of disconnected ideas and events for a lot of its participants. You know what they say about people who remember the sixties.

A coffee table book at heart, 1967 supplies a vibrant lot of images from pop’s most imagistic year, though some of the year’s phantasmagorically rendered album covers would have made for an even more kaleidoscopic visual experience. Kubernik should still be commended for covering the vinyl within the sleeves as thoroughly as he does—referencing the obvious (Sgt. Pepper’s dominates the June topic along with the Monterey Pop Festival) and the more regularly overlooked (The Hollies’ Butterfly, Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk, the Stones’ Between the Buttons, etc.) in kind. The one inexplicable oversight is his failure to even mention The Who Sell Out, my personal pick for the finest album of pop’s finest year. Maybe Kubernik has a hole in his memory where that album belongs because he had a little too much fun in ’67.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: Star Wars Widevision Cards: The Original Topps Trading Card Series Volume One


In the days before Kenner finally shipped their little plastic Lukes and Leias, the most collectible Star Wars product was Topps’ trading card series. Sure the pictures were grainy and blurry, and certain images were repeated ad nauseum while other iconic ones were ignored altogether, but we fans were still in elementary school and gleefully accepted anything remotely related to our favorite movie. Then we grew up. By 1995, all of we kiddie enthusiasts had grown into the maladjusted, overly critical, virtually unlikable adult geeks one now thinks of as a Star Wars fan. Grainy, blurry, and repetitious would no longer do. We demanded a trading card series fit for “adults.” Topps responded with its Widevision series.

As the name implies, the updated cards were bigger than the 3 ½ inch x 2 ½ inch cards of the seventies and eighties. The expanded 5 inch x 2 ¾ inch size allowed a full aspect-ratio view of our favorite Star Wars scenes (and production paintings and poster art), and allowed for more information on the card backs, which included scene descriptions based on the screenplay, concept art, behind-the-scenes photos, and informative captions. Digitally pulled from a 35mm print of the film, the images were much higher quality as well. Even the card stock was a step up. Yes, here were Star Wars cards you did not have to feel embarrassed about framing and hanging on the wall of your mom’s basement.

Continuing its collections of Topps’ sundry Star Wars card series, Abrams Comicarts is devoting its latest volume to the Widescreen series that ran from 1995 to 1997. Once again card scribe Gary Gerani provides an entertaining introduction and fun intermittent card-by-card captions. Abrams does not repeat the mistake it made when it shrank down the majority of its Empire Strikes Back cards. In fact, the already wide-size cards get a bit wider with a very satisfying 6 inch x 3 inch presentation. The slight downside is that if you check the dates the cards ran, you’ll suspect that some Special Additions may have slipped into the series. Indeed we are not spared widevisions of CG dewbacks, Han Solo gabbing with Looney Tunes Jabba the Hutt at Mos Eisley, and a Jawa riding that thing that looks like a cross between a giant alpaca and a scrotum. But that’s only an issue for a third of the 200-or-so cards collected in an overall terrific book.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review:'The Vampire Bat' DVD


Despite its title, The Vampire Bat probably has more in common with Frankenstein than Dracula because of the way it stitches together parts of so many past horror movies. Bouncing off the phony-vampire ruse of London After Midnight and the bat-mimicking murderer of The Bat, this Poverty Row programmer also sprinkles in a villagers-and-torches hunt straight out of Frankenstein, Dwight Frye recreating Renfield (complete with iconic giggle), a bit of rooftop stalking yanked from Murders in the Rue Morgue, and a cast of horror mainstays that includes the eternally creepy Lionel Atwill, the gorgeous and affable Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas, the horror hero David Manners might have been if Manners had a personality.

That sublime cast and director Frank R. Strayer’s prowling camerawork help The Vampire Bat to flap above its patchwork origins. A bizarre climax involving some sort of pulsating monster meatloaf in a fish tank also helps disguise the fact that it is a horror film that tends to pull its punches and engage in a bit too much silly comic relief by way of the shrill Maude Eburne. Nevertheless, The Vampire Bat affords Frye his juiciest horror role aside from Dracula, and that is no small thing, even if Edward T. Lowe’s script forces him to talk like Tonto.

Essentially, The Vampire Bat is a mixed bag. So is The Film Detective’s new DVD. The company’s restoration of the film from 35mm elements boasts a host of video issues. There are scratches, missing frames, stability problems, speckles, washed out shots, and shots that almost look like they were captured on video. However, taken as a whole, the film actually looks good. Quite a number of shots are astoundingly crisp for a picture from 1933 that probably wasn’t at the top of anyone’s to-preserve list. Compared to the mutilated prints on all those cut-rate collections of public domain horror pictures out there, this restoration is revelatory. Plus this new disc restores a startling sequence in which those rampaging villagers wield hand-colored torches of red and yellow, which you probably won’t see on the budget DVDs. With The Vampire Bat, The Film Detective also gets into the bonus material game with a dry yet informative audio commentary from film historian Sam Sherman and a poignant seven-minute featurette in which Melvyn Douglas’s son Gregory Hesselberg discusses his troubled relationship with his dad. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Super Deluxe Edition of Beatles Landmark LP Coming Soon

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may no longer be the unanimous choice for The Beatles' masterpiece, but there's still no denying its historical importance, and well, the fact that its a Fab album even if a lot of people now prefer Revolver or "The White Album". So on May 25, Apple Corps. and Universal Music will celebrate the (roughly) fiftieth anniversary of this watershed album with the very first Super Deluxe Edition of a Beatles album. 

The six-disc Super Deluxe Sgt. Pepper's will include a new stereo remix of the album, two discs of session outtakes (sorry... no unfamiliar songs among the debris, though "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" are represented), the original mono mix with six bonus tracks, and a DVD and Blu-ray disc both containing a new 5.1 surround sound mix of the LP plus the "Penny Lane b/w "Strawberry Fields" single and the 1992 documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper. For the more budget-minded Beatlemaniacs, there will also be double-CD and double-vinyl LP alternatives to the big box. Here's what the main attraction will include (thanks to Super Deluxe Edition.com for this scoop):

Disc One: New Stereo Remix
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
2. With A Little Help From My Friends
3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
4. Getting Better
5. Fixing A Hole
6. She’s Leaving Home
7. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
8. Within You Without You
9. When I’m Sixty-Four
10. Lovely Rita
11. Good Morning Good Morning
12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
13. A Day In The Life


Disc Two: Sessions

Monday, April 3, 2017

Another 'Twin Peaks' Book Is, Indeed, on the Way

A month ago I reported on a tip off that Mark Frost had a second new Twin Peaks book in the works buried in a fan Q&A with him published last October. Now the fan site Welcome to Twin Peaks is confirming this by announcing Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier to be published by Flatiron Publishing, which publishing Frost's Secret History of Twin Peaks last fall. The book will appear on Halloween just a few weeks after the final episode of the series' third season airs on Showtime, and if what Frost said in the Q&A still holds true, The Final Dossier will catch us up on everything that went down during those 25 years between the second and third seasons of Twin Peaks.
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