Sunday, January 16, 2011

"It's My Life" by Talk Talk

Birthday wishes go out to Paul Webb, bassist for British pop group Talk Talk, whose tenure on the scene lasted from 1981 to 1991; since the dissolution of Talk Talk, Webb has been involved in the group .O.rang.

It's My Life was the title track of the band's 1984 album; not a huge hit upon it's release - in fact, it failed to even crack the Top 40 in the UK - the song fared better when it was re-released in 1990 in support of the band's greatest hits package Natural History: The Very Best of Talk Talk, making it all the way to #13 at that time. The song has since been covered by No Doubt, who gave the song a 1930s-style video, making it a kind of catnip to me, although the original video - with all the animals and such - is pretty cool too.
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Pop History Moment: The Advent of Prohibition


The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified on this day in 1919, outlawing the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption throughout the entire country to begin on the same day in 1920. Supplemented by the Volstead Act - and championed by such pious busybodies as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as well as forward-thinking organizations* like the LDS Church, neither of which ought to have had any right to decide public policy in the first place - Prohibition would become one of the most massive failures in the history of social engineering...

Not only did it fail to stop people from drinking, Prohibition funneled vast profits to criminal gangs, strengthening organized crime and contributing to untold deaths - deaths either directly attributable to crime when rival gangs and police would engage each other in gun battles on city streets, or else as the result of poisoning from drinking concoctions derived from denatured alcohol and even explosions thanks to poorly-made stills. It also brought about the end of the so-called Progressive Era.

Still, in pop culture terms, Prohibition was a boon; I know my life would have been much less rich had I not watched the literally dozens of gangster movies I have... One such film, 1939's The Roaring Twenties, opens with the indelible image of a happy couple walking with a pram; the next shot reveals that it is filled not with a baby but with dozens of bottle of liquor. The film continues in that vein, making the case cinematically which law enforcement and the man on the street alike knew to be the case - that Prohibition hurt far more than it helped.

America would remain officially dry until December 1933 when, due to the efforts of the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt** the Twenty-first Amendment to the US Constitution rescinded the Eighteenth, and the Blaine Act undid the Volstead Act, finally effecting the repeal of Prohibition.

**Who'd made it one of the main planks of his election platform.

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The Murder of Ennis Cosby

While we at the Pop Culture Institute don't condone murder (or, indeed, crime of any kind) certain crimes - even murder - we can understand; crimes of passion, for instance, as senseless as they are, are at least rooted in some cause or other.

PhotobucketThe murder of Ennis Cosby was not; the killing of comedian Bill Cosby's only son was an entirely senseless act of violence, made 'good' only by the killer's confession, thereby saving the state of California some expense.

While driving on LA's Interstate 405 on this day in 1997 Cosby's car developed a flat tire; he pulled over to the side of the road and was attempting to fix it when he was confronted by Mikhail Markhasev. Markasev demanded money, and when he didn't get it, shot Cosby in the head. After shooting Cosby Markasev didn't even then attempt to rob him, but fled the scene. Ennis Cosby was 27.

Training to be a special education teacher at the time of his death (Cosby - like Theo Huxtable, who was based on him - was dyslexic) after his murder his family set up a foundation in his honour called Hello Friend, which has in the past benefited from the sale of his father's iconic sweaters (as worn on The Cosby Show).
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"Anything Goes" by Ethel Merman

On what would have been her birthday, I would be remiss if I didn't post something about the acclaimed Broadway belter Ethel Merman; what better, then, than a performance of one of the earliest triumphs of her career?

Merman was more or less the muse of Cole Porter, having starred in five of his musicals onstage; the first of these was Anything Goes, in which she created the role of Reno Sweeney in 1934 and for which she reprised that role on film in 1936.

Since I am a sucker for anything with a Thirties flavour, it seemed a case of serendipity that I should find this 1970s-era clip floating around on YouTube just begging to be posted.

Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
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Pop History Moment: Jazz Comes To Carnegie Hall


On this day in 1938 Benny Goodman - one of the foremost practitioners of that most American musical genre, jazz - brought what was then the most vibrant element of American culture to what was then a stultified American bastion of European culture, Carnegie Hall. Buoyed by the wild success of his film Hollywood Hotel, Goodman staged the concert mainly at the behest of his publicist, Wynn Nathanson, and in its single night was as instrumental in ushering in the Swing Era as Goodman's three-week-long August 1935 engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles.

Now considered the single most important jazz concert ever, the best American players in the game on that evening treated a capacity crowd of 2,760* - some of whom paid as much as $2.75 for their tickets, a sum then considered astronomical** - to the highlights not just of their own catalogue but to some of the genre's die-hard standards as well. The Benny Goodman Orchestra - which the bandleader had taken off the road early so as to rehearse within the challenging acoustics of Carnegie Hall itself - was aided in their performance by vocalist Martha Tilton, who sang Loch Lomond.

Despite a somewhat slow start, with a musical history of the form covering the previous twenty years and an awkward jam session featuring members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras sitting in, by the time the distinctive opening tympani solo of Sing, Sing, Sing began to make its thundering way through the hall from the stage to the rafters the crowd was really jumping - literally! - going so far as filling the aisles with dancers. With tenor saxophonist Babe Russin, trumpeter Harry James, pianist Jess Stacy, and drummer Gene Krupa tearing through the number Goodman himself handled its clarinet solos with his signature elegant style.

The concert was not, however, an unmitigated success at the time; it actually lost money, thanks largely to the cost of rehearsals, and of course the more staid critics rubbished Goodman for his efforts. The venue was picketed by Roman Catholic pro-Franco supporters, since Goodman had recently played a benefit for Loyalists fighting the Spanish Civil War. The recording made that night wouldn't be released for almost a dozen years, despite the fact that it captures all of its participants at the peak of their abilities, and then when it finally was it was mastered from its acetate reels rather than its higher quality aluminum discs, which themselves remained undiscovered until 1998. In fact, much of the concert has been lost, ill-served by the technology and recording methods of the day. And so on...

Of course, it is often in retrospect that we first recognize our greatest moments, and the same can be said to be true for geniuses like Benny Goodman as for mere mortals such as myself. Despite what was described as an 'electrical current' in the air that night, and despite the fact that Goodman and his audacious concert had succeeded in elevating jazz from mere entertainment*** to an art form where others had failed, it's likely Goodman thereafter considered his greatest moment as just another show, albeit one well-played.

*As many as a hundred of whom sat in overflow seating onstage with the band! Goodman himself had to buy tickets for his out-of-town family from scalpers!
**Something above $50 in today's money.
***As if anything as important as entertainment ought to be saddled with such a passive-aggressive modifier as 'mere'.

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The Death of Lady Hamilton

She was the most beautiful woman of her day; knowing that her beauty was the best chance she had to achieve the life she wanted, she exploited it to its utmost. Whether her life was any better on this day in 1815, the day she died, than it was on the unknown day she was born is a matter for debate; she certainly did have an interesting life out of it, though...

PhotobucketBorn in obscurity (her birth date unrecorded, the year likely 1761) and raised in humble surroundings, she arrives in history a precocious 12 year-old - in the days when a 12 year-old was more like a 20 year-old of today - already aware of her objective and ambitious enough to achieve it.

Originally a maid, she quickly gravitated to London, where she worked in that line for several actresses, including Mary Robinson, the mistress of the Prince Regent. Since maiding was a thankless and low-paying job she was soon working in the vicinity of the Drury Lane Theatre as a prostitute (which paid better) and as an artist's model (which provided copious thanks from the artists, fame, and access to well-heeled admirers as well).

In the latter endeavour she was particularly favoured by the artists Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney; having posed for Romney hundreds of times - portraying nymphs, goddesses, and the like - it soon occurred to her to pose as a lady (or at least a Lady). To this end she set her sights on a preferably noble, eminently forgiving, suitably rich, potentially old husband to complete the picture. She thought she'd found one in Charles Francis Greville although, as the second son of the Earl of Warwick, he stood to inherit nothing; not only that, the toffee-nosed git refused to marry her, preferring instead the obscenely wealthy Henrietta Willoughby.

In due time Greville passed her to his wealthy uncle Sir William Hamilton, whereupon she was whisked away to Naples to live as the wife of the British envoy. His Lordship, in turn, was more than happy to share Her Ladyship with one of the greatest military heroes of that or any other time - Lord Horatio Nelson. Amazingly, despite the scandalous life she'd led to date, it was as Nelson's mistress that Lady Hamilton achieved her greatest notoriety.

They first met in 1793, although their affair did not begin until after September 1798 when, at a party the Hamiltons threw for him she fainted into his arms in admiration; when she gave birth to his daughter in January 1801 she called the baby Horatia, who was then swaddled in secrecy. Shortly thereafter Nelson bought Merton Place, outside of London, and set up housekeeping for himself, Emma, their daughter, and Emma's mother there. Sir William was even known to bunk up at Merton Place on occasion, which must have made for some cozy evenings around the fire.

In 1803, after the death of Emma's husband, she was refused his pension. Nelson's return to the sea came a short while later; without his presence, fewer and fewer visitors came to see her or the home she maintained as a shrine to him. After Nelson's death in October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar she was naturally denied his pension and the respect accorded his widow - she wasn't even invited to his funeral. The final decade of her life was spent in trying to maintain his home, which was a losing battle; bit by bit she sold off the property, and finally the house. By the time it was finally demolished in 1823 she'd already been dead for years.

Emma, Lady Hamilton, was notably portrayed by Vivien Leigh - herself one of the most beautiful women of her day - in the 1941 film That Hamilton Woman.
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"Cherish The Day" by Sade

From the 1992 album Love Deluxe, it's Cherish the Day...

As is usually the case whenever I do the video hat trick, choosing that third one is often frustrating; sometimes it's because there aren't three good clips to choose from, but more often than not the problem is choosing which of literally half a dozen songs I love for inclusion, meaning that something I really admire gets left out.

Now, in the past I've dealt with this by hemming and hawing over it in the body of the post, and in the process included links to all the excluded songs; I'm not going to do that today. I've already done it once, and I don't want to be any more repetitive than I already am. Besides which, not spending an hour doing it all for you means I have an extra hour to spend on my life (you know, the one I have away from my desk - that is to say, the life I would have if I ever got away from my desk).

If seeing and reading about Sade on the Pop Culture Institute today has inflamed your interest to the degree it did mine, I think I can trust you to go to YouTube yourself and type in four little letters into the search box for yourself. Oh alright, there... I just did it for you.

Now it's time for me to take the evening off and cherish the day...
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"The Spell Of The Yukon" by Robert Service

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy, I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it --
Came out with a fortune last fall, --
Yet somehow life's not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn't all.

No! There's the land. (Have you seen it?)
It's the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it's a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there's some as would trade it
For no land on earth -- and I'm one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it's been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.

I've stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That's plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I've watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I've thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o' the world piled on top.

The summer -- no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness --
O God! how I'm stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I've bade 'em good-by -- but I can't.

There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There's a land -- oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back -- and I will.

They're making my money diminish;
I'm sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I'm skinned to a finish
I'll pike to the Yukon again.
I'll fight -- and you bet it's no sham-fight;
It's hell! -- but I've been there before;
And it's better than this by a damsite --
So me for the Yukon once more.

There's gold, and it's haunting and haunting;
It's luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting
So much as just finding the gold.

It's the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.
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In Memoriam: Robert Service

Robert Service is a prime example of a person who was in the right place at the right time; employed as a banker, as a young man he was posted by his employer - the Canadian Bank of Commerce - to the still-remote location of Whitehorse, in Canada's Yukon Territory. Subsequently he lived in a cabin on 8th Avenue in Dawson City.

PhotobucketThat the territory had recently been in the grips of a gold rush suited Service fine, and he set about crafting a series of poems which today are a part and parcel of Canada's national mythology. The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee are just two of the works included in his first book, 1907's The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (published in England as The Songs of a Sourdough). He was often referred to as the 'Canadian Kipling', which was a greater compliment in those days than it is now.

By 1909 his books had made him enough money that Service was able quit his job, and thereafter he traveled the world, often as a newspaper correspondent; he never returned to the Yukon. In the period 1912-3 he covered the Balkan Wars for the Toronto Star. Despite his burgeoning wealth he dressed and lodged humbly.

During the First World War he worked as an ambulance driver for the Canadian Red Cross, which isn't exactly as cushy a job as it might sound, given that the roads in France were subject to shelling, and just as often rutted by rain; he was also a correspondent for the Canadian government during the war. His book Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, published in 1916, detailed his experiences.

Born on this day in 1874, Robert Service died in September 1958; his cabin in Dawson, long maintained by the IODE, was taken over by Parks Canada in 1971. Although visitors may not enter the building, they are able to peer into it, and in doing so, peer into that brief period of his life when Robert Service truly was 'the bard of the Klondike'.
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"Is It A Crime?" by Sade

From Sade's second album Promise, released in 1985, comes the second of three videos on this, her birthday. The name of the album refers to Sade's father, who was being treated for cancer at the time, and had promised her that he would get better. I can't seem to find any information on whether he made good on that promise or not, but in any event I'd like to dedicate this song to people living with, and attempting to overcome, cancer.

Is It A Crime was never a huge hit, except at my house, where it was in heavy rotation throughout 1986; I just love the way it builds and falls repeatedly. It was around this time that I began to have serious misgivings about the way people listened to music; this song was as good or better than most stuff on the radio that year, yet do you think I could drag anyone away from their Def Leppard or Bon Jovi long enough to listen to it...?

(Not that I'm bitter. Much.)
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Remembering... Francesco Scavullo

For thirty years every Cosmo girl was also a Scavullo girl; from 1965, when Helen Gurley Brown hired him to sex up the cover of Cosmopolitan, until his death in January 2004 (ten days before his eighty-third birthday, on his way to photograph Anderson Cooper) the obfuscation he employed in the pursuit of effortless glamour would beguile and bedevil women in equal measure...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1921, Scavullo showed an interest in fashion from a young age; he got his first job as a photographer while still a teenager. Indulged by his mother (who used to take him window shopping along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan), his sisters (who were his first models), and his father (who bought him his first camera) he went to work for Vogue in 1945.

There Scavullo worked with acclaimed photographers Cecil Beaton, John Rawlings, and Horst P. Horst, whose assistant he was for three years; in 1948, Scavullo shot his first cover, for Seventeen, and from that point on never looked back.

In high demand throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it was the 1970s that really defined Scavullo's oeuvre; the cocaine-fuelled orgy of that decade was best contrasted by Scavullo's cool, aloof style. One of the first celebrities to go public with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder in the early 1980s, he was thereafter vocal in regards to others seeking treatment for this potentially ruinous condition.

Scavullo was also known for his portraits of celebrities; he shot the notorious Burt Reynolds centerfold from the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan, and one of his muses was doomed supermodel Gia Carangi. The April 1982 cover he shot of her was her last, and taken when no one else would hire her, which says a lot about the level of loyalty for which he was known.
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Pop History Moment: The Death of Carole Lombard

For all her wacky antics onscreen, the foremost film comedienne of the 1930s was a patriotic American girl at heart; shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Carole Lombard had managed to personally sell millions of dollars worth of war bonds, more than anyone else up to that time.

PhotobucketWhich made her death, on this day in 1942, all the more poignant; returning home from a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana, the plane in which Lombard was traveling made an unscheduled refueling stop at what is now Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. Shortly after resuming its journey to Burbank, on a clear night, the plane crashed into the side of Mount Potosi near Double-Up Peak, igniting a forest fire in the process.

All 22 passengers onboard TWA Flight 3 - including MGM publicist Otto Winkler as well as Lombard's mother - were killed. Lombard's last words to an adoring public before boarding that fateful flight had been: 'Before I say goodbye to you all, come on and join me in a big cheer! V for Victory!' She was 33.

Her husband, Hollywood leading man Clark Gable, was said to be inconsolable at the loss, and soon enlisted, eventually flying bombing missions over Germany as a gunner; despite a subsequent remarriage, following his own death in November 1960 he was buried next to her. Jack Benny, Lombard's final costar (in the Ernst Lubitsch-directed anti-Nazi comedy To Be or Not to Be) scrapped that week's episode of his popular radio sitcom in favour of music in her honour.

To further honour her and her efforts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially named her the first female casualty of World War II, saying she had died in the line of duty, and posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Two years later (minus a day) the Liberty ship SS Lombard was launched, bearing her name...

Carole Lombard has been played in the movies most famously by Jill Clayburgh, in Sidney J. Furie's 1976 film Gable and Lombard, opposite James Brolin as Clark Gable.
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"Smooth Operator" by Sade

Elegant jazz-pop songstress and birthday gal Sade appears here in the full 8 and a half minute video to this, her first single, Smooth Operator; oddly enough, Sade is the lead singer of a band called Sade, which must get confusing when it's time to open the mail.

Trained in fashion (she attended London's prestigious St. Martin's College in the late 70s) she was running a small atelier making men's clothes when the music industry beckoned. Her debut album Diamond Life - from which this is taken - was released in 1984 in the US and 1985 in the US, and was a huge smash, especially around my house. I think I listened to her more than I listened to Madonna, which admission frankly shocks even me.

This video was directed by Julian Temple, with whom she would later work on the stylish 1986 musical Absolute Beginners.

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POPnews - January 16th

[That the Space Shuttle Columbia was both the first to become space-worthy (on mission STS-1, shown above, in April 1981) and almost the last one in history (following mission STS-107, launched on this day in 2003) is an irony not lost on the Pop Culture Institute; unfortunately, the same talking heads whose criticisms nearly scuttled NASA's Space Shuttle Program altogether following Columbia's tragic destruction seemed incapable of grasping the idea that space travel involves a lower risk for fatality than any other kind of travel, including anything involving a motor vehicle.]

27 BCE - The title Augustus was bestowed upon Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian by the Roman Senate, making the nephew and heir of Julius Caesar the first Emperor of Rome.

929 CE - Emir Abd-ar-Rahman III of Cordoba declared himself caliph, thereby establishing the Caliphate of Cordoba in what is now northern Spain.

1120 - The Council of Nablus was held, establishing the earliest surviving written laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was established by Crusaders in 1099.

1362 - A great storm tide originating in the North Sea tore the German island of Strand in two and destroyed the wealthy city of Rungholt, as will happen along the Wadden Sea.

1547 - Ivan the Terrible was crowned Tsar of Russia having succeeded his father Vasili III in December 1533 and following the long regency of his mother, Elena Glinskaya.

1556 - The husband and king consort of England's Queen Mary I became King Philip II of Spain.

1605 - The first edition of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (Book One of Don Quixote) by Miguel de Cervantes was published in Madrid.

1761 - British forces captured the Indian settlement of Puducherry from the French and did what the British usually did in such a situation: changed its name, to Pondicherry.

1809 - The British defeated the French at the Battle of La Coruña during the Peninsular War.

1847 - John C. Frémont was appointed Governor of the new California Territory, three days after the Treaty of Cahuenga ended the Mexican-American War.

1883 - In response to the assassination of President James Garfield by a disgruntled office-seeker, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed by US Congress, establishing a civil service based on merit; sponsored by Senator George H. Pendleton (D-Ohio) and written by Dorman Bridgeman Eaton, the new law outlawed patronage and nepotism in the US government.

1938 - The famous jazz concert by the Benny Goodman Orchestra and special guests took place at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the first jazz performance in that venue.

1945 - Adolf Hitler moved into his underground bunker, the so-called Führerbunker.

1986 - The Internet Engineering Task Force first met.

1996 - Long-serving three-time Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou resigned from office for health reasons; he died the following June.

2001 - Congolese President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated by Rashidi Kasereka, one of his own bodyguards, who was also killed in the botched coup attempt.

2003 - Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off on the ill-starred mission STS-107 which would be its final one; Columbia disintegrated 16 days later over the southern US upon re-entry.

2005 - Adriana Iliescu became the oldest woman in the world to give birth, at age 66... The event also gave birth to some truly horrible jokes, some of which I'm not at all proud of myself for having thought them up.

2006 - Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in as Liberia's new president, making her Africa's first female elected head of state.
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