Monday, May 03, 2010

"Tainted Love" by Soft Cell

Birthday wishes go out today to David Ball, a man with the perennial bad luck to be best known as 'the other bloke out of Soft Cell'...  Ball and bandmate Marc Almond first met at Leeds Polytechnic, and in 1979 formed their pioneering synthpop duo.  Despite a string of Top Forty hits in the UK, they are best known worldwide for Tainted Love, which was the second single off their 1981 album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret*.

Soft Cell weren't the first to record the song** - that honour belongs to Gloria Jones, who did it in 1964; nor would they be the last, as Marilyn Manson would put his own unique spin on it in 2001 for inclusion on the soundtrack to Not Another Teen Movie.  And then, of course, there's Rihanna - whose producer J. R. Rotem extensively sampled it for her 2006 single SOS, from her second studio album A Girl like Me.

Ball has also been a member of The Grid, produced for The Virgin Prunes, done remixes for The Pet Shop Boys and David Bowie, and recorded music for film; he and Almond even reunited Soft Cell, in 2001.

*Given the massive success of Tainted Love it's more than a little strange that the album's first single, Memorabilia, did not even chart.
**Which was written by Ed Cobb, formerly of The Four Preps.
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"Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" by Christopher Cross

Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) earned birthday boy Christopher Cross an Academy Award in 1981, which he shared with co-composers Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen; not only does the song form the emotional core of the film Arthur (starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, and Sir John Gielgud), but it also serves a similar purpose in the stage musical The Boy From Oz, in which it is sung as a duet by Allen and Minnelli (who were once married).

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Gratuitous Brunette: Rob Brydon

PhotobucketMy first pop culture encounter with Rob Brydon was in the third series of Little Britain, in which he plays Roman DeVere - a tiny man torn between two very large women*. Then, as will happen, I took my piqued curiosity straight to YouTube and the rest, as they say, is hours of wasted time justified as 'research' - which some would call 'procrastination' and still others would call 'the tail wagging the dog'**.  Not to mention the fact that my Welsh accent bears a striking resemblance to his - although not in any way that might be considered actionable...

Born on this day in 1965 in Swansea, Brydon has earned a following so large that it would have Bubbles and Desiree seething with jealousy, thanks in part to regular appearances in sitcoms like Marion and Geoff, I'm Alan Partridge, and Gavin and Stacey and guest shots on quiz shows like QI, Have I Got News for You, and of course the quiz show spoof sitcom that is Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive.

*Actually, one large and one normal-sized man each in an oddly disturbing rubber lady suit - but you get the point.
**In other words, am I doing the research for the blog, or did I start the blog to justify the thousands of squandered hours I've spent absorbing this crap?

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Happy Birthday Ben Elton

The main problem with being 'alternative' - as Ben Elton can surely attest - is that such a stance often comes out of the black-and-white idealism of youth; later, when shades of grey begin to creep into both the hair and world-view, it becomes very easy for those who have yet to experience the phenomenon to bandy about judgementalisms like 'sell-out'. Besides which, given the way the world works one year's outrageous is the next year's mainstream anyway...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1959, Elton came to prominence first as an 'alternative' stand up comedian, whose high-octane performances were perfectly suited to the style of The Young Ones, and whose verbal verve and pop cultural sensibilities were tailor-made for the romp through history that is Blackadder - the final three series of which he co-wrote with Richard Curtis.

Despite the huge success of his high profile TV appearances - and thanks in part to friendships with such bold-faced names as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Adrian Edmondson, and Robbie Coltrane - Elton chose to break out of insular world of British television comedy and into the wide-open meritocracy* of the literary world, publishing 13 novels since 1989. A particular favourite around the Pop Culture Institute is his 1991 novel Gridlock.

It was his work with MOR dreck-monger Andrew Lloyd Webber, though, that really got the UK punditocracy - who act like a pack of wild dogs on their best behaviour - all up in arms. Anne Robinson, Mark Steel, and Stewart Lee have all criticized Elton for seemingly having turned his back on his alternative roots in exchange for a comfortable seat among the Establishment; yet who's to say that in doing so he hasn't merely found a way to bring the alternative sensibility that made him famous to society's highest echelons? Or that the reason he's lost his edge is that he stopped using cocaine? Or that the only reason he's elicited any criticism at all around this matter is that his critics all fear the same thing happening to them?  Or that they might be jealous of his resounding success in numerous fields of endeavour?

*In the interest of full disclosure, this is sarcasm; the only field narrower than television is publishing, which could more rightly be called a clique than an industry.

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"Now You Has Jazz" by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong

Der Bingle is as cool and clear as glass while Satchmo hisses and pops like a firecracker next to him, and the result is like watching bottled lightning! Although they more famously sang Now You Has Jazz - written by Cole Porter - in the 1956 musical High Society*, this looks to me like a TV appearance they may have made around that same time to promote the film. Seeing it here for the first time, I'm tempted to suggest renaming their skilful duet Now You Has Magic.

The two had worked together as early as 1930, jamming at a joint called the New Cotton Club in Culver City, where they were also known to share a few - joints that is; owing as much to the silk and sandpaper contrast of their voices as to their combined artistry, many of the songs they subsequently recorded together are beloved still, such as 1951's Gone Fishin', which is a particular favourite around the Pop Culture Institute, especially on lazy summer afternoons.

Separately these two titans were merely Havin' Fun but together's when they started Havin' More Fun - all the while helping to tear down the colour barrier while doing it. At a time when blacks and whites seldom interacted socially - or did so warily, at best - the image of two highly popular performers doing so comfortably served as a powerful tonic to a nation which had devoted so much time and effort toward socially engineering just the opposite.

And yet late in life Armstrong reminisced that, as close as he and Crosby had been professionally, he'd never once been invited to Bing's house... Just as well, considering the mishegas that was (allegedly) going on behind those closed doors.

The story of Crosby's meteoric rise to fame - including the beginnings of his friendship with Louis Armstrong - is told in exquisite detail in Gary Giddins' superb biography Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years, 1903-1940.

*Costarring Grace Kelly and Bing's most famous protege, Old Blue Eyes himself...

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In Memoriam: Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby's is far and away the most recorded voice in history; in all he made more than 1,700 recordings (with an estimated 41 of them #1 hits, including White Christmas, the #1 song of all time) and in a career spanning five decades - from vaudeville right on into the 1970s - he excelled simultaneously as a recording artist and as an actor first on radio, then in movies and finally, on television. During the last half of the 1940s he was the top box office draw for five consecutive years, and based on ticket sales alone is the third biggest movie star in history, after Clark Gable and John Wayne. Offscreen, he was an able businessman, who left a sizable fortune (said to be in excess of $150 million) at the time of his death, in October 1977.

PhotobucketIn the years since his death, though, Crosby's legacy as a performer has been considerably tarnished by the accusations of one man - his son Gary, whose memoir Going My Own Way was published in 1983. No matter how often or how loudly others (including Gary's brother Phillip) have come to their father's defense in the years since, the human propensity not only for preferring to believe the worst in a person but for also allowing it to obliterate a person's best seems to have won out in this instance*. So while the elder Crosby's much-vaunted qualities as a father may have been dealt a mortal blow, I prefer to let his achievements as an entertainer remain as untouched as they are unmatched.

Crosby's phrasing and cool baritone not only influenced most of the male singers who followed him - including Frank Sinatra - but his emphasis on the words no doubt brought about a better quality of songwriting as well, an innovation which is always welcome. Crosby didn't suffer from the delusion that just because he was a singer of popular songs he couldn't also be a consummate artist - an attitude many pop singers today would do well to emulate, since those who do generally are. Likewise, his interest in the technical side of the industry led him to invest in the development of, among other things, reel-to-reel technology; not only did these innovations serve him as an artist, but they helped to make him a mogul as well.

Still, the troubling legacy of Bing Crosby is one which calls out for understanding, rather than condemnation. The more or less relentless pressure on individuals to marry and have children - whether they're qualified or not - is responsible for much of the world's heartache; likewise, it is seldom made clear that it is incumbent upon us as adults to overcome whatever errors we feel might have occurred in our upbringing, and how we do (or indeed whether we even choose to) says more about us than our resume, eulogy, and Facebook page combined.

Bing Crosby was born on this day in 1903; for the most fair account of his early years and rise to fame may we suggest Gary Giddins' 2002 biography A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940.

*In Gary Crosby's defense, two of Bing's sons, Lindsay and Dennis later committed suicide, and all were raised in an atmosphere containing much dysfunction in the way of alcoholism (mainly on the part of their mother, Dixie Lee) - not to mention the kind of social and psychological mendacity demanded of everyone by the society of the time.

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Machiavelli: The Prince of Power

The shifting alliances and quicksilver borders of Central Europe during the Renaissance make for an interesting - if confusing - time in history; within the historical record of that era dozens of Popes and Princes jostle for attention amongst some of the finest minds (and talents) the human race has ever produced. Fascinating as it is, I've always found the age a tiny bit daunting; still, the blog must go on, which as always compels me to delve into it wherever and whenever I can.

PhotobucketOne of the finest minds of the time belonged to Niccolò Machiavelli (born on this day in 1469) whose works have proven so useful through the centuries that his name has been adjectivized - a singular honour in pop cultural terms. So, while 'Machiavellian' may not have the greatest connotation these days - with its insistence on the use of cunning and deceit for personal gain - in the context of its time and place, obviously, it was just the thing.

The chief work of Machiavelli's literary legacy is a book called The Prince - which is shocking in the way it subverts the natural order by being essentially a lecture, delivered by a civil servant, instructing his 'betters' how they should comport themselves while conducting the business of government. Probably for this reason the book, although written in 1513, wasn't published until 1532 - five years after its author's death. While far from being the only book Machiavelli ever produced, for better or worse, it's the one whose reputation seems to be the most durable.

The Vatican later placed The Prince on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which is as sterling an endorsement as I could hope to give it; unsurprisingly, the ideas presented in it were shunned by humanists such as Erasmus, whose insistence on goodness offers a method of self-improvement which is far too much work for most people. Machiavelli, obviously a realist*, must have known that a certain portion of any populace - in other words, the ruling class or anyone hoping to attain that status - has no time for kindness, and at least offered them a way to temper the worst excesses of their cruelty by appealing to their inborn need for respect.

*An archaic word we may now better recognize as 'cynic'.

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Now Showing: The Festival of Britain

Here then is a bit of video nostalgia regarding the Festival of Britain, which opened was opened on this day in 1951 on London's South Bank by King George VI; short on narration but long on midcentury sentiment, it attempts to encapsulate everything the festival was, and even manages to do it in colour!
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Pop History Moment: The Festival of Britain Opened

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On this day in 1951 George VI opened the Festival of Britain on London's South Bank; not only was it a celebration of the centenary of the first world's fair - the Great Exhibition of 1851 - it was intended to aid in Britain's postwar rebuilding.

Ironically most of the buildings on the Festival of Britain site - save for the Royal Festival Hall itself - were later demolished by that noted architecture critic, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who felt they were too 'socialist' (whatever that means). All construction at the site had been overseen by Hugh Casson, although the hall itself was built by the firm of Holland, Hannen & Cubitts; despite the destruction of his masterwork, Casson was later knighted for his efforts.

On a less festive note, the crowds that gathered to greet the King, Queen, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, and other assembled senior members of the Royal Family, were shocked by His Majesty's gaunt appearance that day; his speech, never confident, was now halting and airless. If he looked not long for this world that day, it's because he wasn't; in September* he would secretly have his left lung removed, and by the following February he was gone.

*One week to the day before the Festival closed, as it turns out.

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POPnews - May 3rd

[Currently in Madrid's Museo del Prado, Goya's painting - depicting the execution of Spanish patriots following an abortive uprising against Napoleonic rule the previous day - is a surprisingly contemporary depiction of the oldest of human horrors (namely war) despite the fact that it was completed in 1814. As befitting the painter considered both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns, his work combines graphic elements which anticipate expressionism and Fauvism to come yet has a careful composition consistent with the classical styles of the past. The result is as shocking, bold, and unforgettable as the event it depicts in capturing a moment in time...]

1491 - Kongo's King Nkuwu Nzinga was baptised by Portuguese missionaries, taking the name João I; the historical record, though, suggests his was a strategic, rather than heartfelt, conversion...

1791 - Poland's May Constitution - Europe's first modern constitution - was proclaimed by that country's Sejm; King Stanisław August's subsequent address to that body (which was essentially his oath to uphold it) had the assembly in tears, especially those in the Patriotic Party, who had lobbied to ensure its reformist intent was approved intact.

1808 - At the outset of the Peninsular War the same rebels in Madrid who rose up against Bonapartian tyranny during the previous day's Dos de Mayo Uprising were executed by firing squad near Príncipe Pío hill - their leader, Pedro Velarde, having died the previous day in battle. The scene was later painted by Francisco Goya as The Third of May 1808.

1815 - During the Neapolitan War the erstwhile King of Naples, Joachim Murat, was defeated by an Austrian army of Francis I's under Frederick Bianchi at the Battle of Tolentino; the decisive engagement of the war, it returned the rightful Bourbon king to the throne as Ferdinand IV, and was a crucial victory for the Seventh Coalition during the period known as the Hundred Days.

1830 - England's Canterbury and Whitstable Railway opened, making it the first steam hauled passenger railway to issue season tickets and include a tunnel.

1837 - The University of Athens was founded; currently Greece's second largest (after Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) it has been open continuously ever since.

1849 - The May Uprising began in Dresden, making it the last of the German revolutions of 1848.

1860 - Charles XV of Sweden-Norway was crowned King of Sweden.

1915 - The poem In Flanders Fields was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a day after he watched his friend, 22 year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, die; the poem was published that December in Punch and has been a perennial reminder of the horrors of war at every Remembrance Day since.

1916 - Fifteen leaders of Ireland's Easter Rising - including all seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation - were ordered executed in Dublin by General John Maxwell; one rebel who managed to avoid the hail of bullets that day (and for nine subsequent days) was Éamon de Valera, who went on to become the first president of the Dáil Éireann and a towering figure of mid-century politics in that country.

1933 - Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman to head the United States Mint when she was appointed to the post by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1957 - Legend has it Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, agreed to move the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

1960 - The Anne Frank House opened in Amsterdam.

1973 - Chicago's Sears Tower was topped out as the world's tallest building.

1978 - Legend has it the first unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail (which would later become known as spam) occurred when a DEC marketing representative was sent to every ARPANET address on the west coast of the United States; anyway, it easily shares the title with the April 1994 bombardment of 6,000 usenet groups by online immigration shysters Canter & Siegel.

1991 - The Declaration of Windhoek was signed in Namibia, with an aim to increasing press freedom in Africa.

2003 - New Hampshire's famous natural rock formation Old Man of the Mountain collapsed.

2006 - Zacarias Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison by a court in Alexandria, Virginia, for his role in the 9/11 Attacks.

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