100bookshelf: Robert Hilburn, Corn Flakes with John Lennon

Robert Hilburn, Corn Flakes with John Lennon

Once upon a long, long time ago, I was sent out this book to have a read and review. Then there was all this real life stuff and 100b was pretty much abandoned, book reviewing and all. Many apologies to all involved and I’d almost call it too late to bother, but a deal is a deal. Plus, I just found out that this book will be newly available in paperback in October, so I’m going to call it better late than never.

The book in question is Robert Hilburn’s Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock’n’Roll Life). Hilburn was the LA Times rock critic from, well, pretty much the days when rock criticism was invented, until just a few years ago. Corn Flakes is a personal account of his long and impressive career. According to the book jacket, at least.

There’s a lot of great things about Hilburn’s writing and ideas, but this is most definitely not a “highly opinioned and deeply personal look at rock ‘n’ roll”, as the wikipedia put it. For such an accomplished and distinguished writer, Hilburn just doesn’t seem comfortable when he is his own subject. And while his book describes some very unique encounters with some of history’s biggest rock stars, this is not a tell-all account of scandalous goings-on. I can’t imagine why this book is masquerading as something it’s not – even the full title is a bit misleading – when what it is is a lot more interesting.

Although Hilburn feels awkward when writing about his own place in this story, he really shines – as you’d expect from a rock critic – when discussing his ideas about rock’s history and future. And that there is what this book is really about. Hilburn takes us on a little journey through rock, starting with his childhood love of Elvis, through the discoveries of his most beloved music: that of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, up through to Jack White. And through examining each artist – their music, philosophies, song-writing styles, and – almost most importantly – their reaction to celebrity, Hilburn creates his definition of what makes an artist or specific music truly important.

But perhaps what is most interesting about this book is actually its underlying question of what the future of rock holds. Hilburn wonders how long rock can go on and how long he (or one) can be a part of it all. He describes his frustration with the lack of a uniting figure in current rock, in the way that Michael Jackson once was, but does mention a few artists he finds promising enough to potentially fill that role: Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst, and mainly, Jack White. Unfortunately for us, he doesn’t go into too much detail with his thoughts on these artists; I’d really like to have read them. But he does make a very interesting point about how the role of celebrity, as it is today with its tabloid culture, has become such a painful idea to so many that there may never be another Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Are artists are now too wary of the machine to become fully involved in it, to go through with being a voice that will unify the small specialist audiences that the listening public has become?

To me, this is what’s really interesting in Corn Flakes and something I myself have spent a lot of time thinking about. It’s occurred to me that Justin Timberlake may be the closest thing we’ll have to another Michael Jackson (neverminding the musical similarity), simply because he has huge crossover appeal. Of course, artists like Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, Coldplay, and Kylie Minogue all have similar appeal – but as much as I enjoy them all, they’re none of them the new Michael Jackson. I don’t feel like any one of these artists really has all that much to say, musically or socially. Coldplay claims to, but not everyone’s convinced about that, myself included – and I find it telling that Coldplay is not mentioned in Hilburn’s book among those acts that have the potential he’s looking for.

Anyway, I’m not going to answer that question here in this post – even Hilburn couldn’t in a whole book – but it is an interesting discussion and I think Hilburn has some intriguing things to say about it. Corn Flakes has some flaws, but is well worth the read – I’ll be considering some of Hilburn’s ideas and the questions he poses for a long time to come.

John Lennon – Instant Karma
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Poptastic Day: Mama-se, Mama-sa, Mama-makossa

Soul Makossa

Do you ever look something up online and take so many strange turns that you end up reading up on a topic that has nothing even remotely to do with the original search? Me, ALL the time – it’s like wiki-ADD. The other day I started off wanting to know why Pluto (the dwarf planet, not the Disney dog) was demoted only three years ago.* Somehow, and I can’t for the life of me remember how, I’ve become an expert on where the phrase ‘mama-se, mama-sa, mama-makossa’ comes from. True story! Well, I say “expert”, I mean I now know as much as the person who wrote the Wikipedia entry.

You may have heard the phrase around the playground, it’s been used by a plethora of artists as varied as the Blood Hound Gang and Rihanna. I first heard it in Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and have been trying to get it out of my head since that first listen years and years ago. I found out that Makossa is a musical style popular in West and Central Africa in which traditional African music is mixed with Jazz, Highlife and Soul. Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango popularized the sound with his hit, “Soul Makossa”, now known as a forerunner of disco.

The single was originally a B-side and released in 1972. David Mancuso, the New York based, self-proclaimed “musical host” used to spin records in his building at the very first, underground dance parties, known as The Loft. To this day, he refuses to call himself a DJ, but he is slowly being recognized as a major influence in the history of the DJ. Anyhoo, he got a hold of a copy and started playing it regularly at these underground, Loft parties. The song became high in demand but there were only a handful of copies, so it was sold out in a jiffy. The smart people at Atlantic licensed it and reproduced it en masse, but not before a couple dozen other bands had covered and released the song, trying to hitch a ride on its popular coattails. Moreover, artists have been using “mama-se, mama-sa” in some form or another ever since, and continue to do so.

The original Manu Dibango song is ridiculously catchy and so freakin’ funky it’s gonna makes you want to cut a rug, heck make that twelve rugs. It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to see why this song is known as a prime example of proto-disco.

Manu Dibango – Soul Makossa

Here are some songs that perpetuate the popularity of the phrase:

Michael Jackson – Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
A Tribe Called Quest – Rhythm (Devoted To The Art Of Moving Butts)

*In the unlikely event anyone was reading this hoping for an answer to the Pluto question: it wasn’t till 2006 that the term “planet” was first truly defined by the International Astronomical Union. Pluto only covers two out of three criteria that make a planet a planet and ever since it gets bullied by the other 8 proper planets. Poor, tiny Pluto.

Those Zany Charts…

Billboard Hot 100

By way of an introduction to this episode of Those Zany Charts, I’m going to ask you, gentle reader, to hazard a guess at which artist or band has had the most No. 1 hits in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. Have a think about it, I’ll wait.

Michael Jackson, right? That was my guess anyway, and that of some people I posed the same question to. Somehow none of us thought of the obvious.

I recently came across this chart of charts – the Billboard list of the biggest hit-makers in the history of their Hot 100 (the first edition occurred in August 1958). Of course the answer is The Beatles, with a whopping 20 (twenty!) chart-topping singles. I’m almost ashamed not to have gotten it right, though I will say that none of the Beatles’ #1s are songs I really love. (Go here to see a detailed list of specific singles.) Maybe that’s because, since they were so big, they’re the ones that are played most frequently and you gradually get sick of them over your lifetime. Or maybe I just like other Beatles songs much better. Whatever the case, I’m not at all surprised to see them at the top, only embarrassed not to have figured it out for myself.

As for the rest of these chart-topping artists, let’s have a more general look. Yup, there’s Michael Jackson, down at #3 with 13 top hits. And what a 13 they are (other than maybe “Say Say Say” and “You Are Not Alone”, ugh), though I am kind of surprised at how short they each stayed at the top. Ditto for Madonna, just below Mr. Jackson with 12 #1s. The Supremes and Rolling Stones (12 and 8 hits, respectively) are hardly a shock, nor are Stevie Wonder (10), the Bee Gees (9), or Elton John (9).

Whitney Houston (11) and Janet Jackson (10) aren’t people I’d have thought of but I guess it does make sense that they’re represented on this list. It does seem funny though that neither “My Love Is Your Love” nor “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” – in my opinion, their best songs – were #1s. Anyway, the real surprises, for me at least, are:

– Paul McCartney/Wings with 9 chart-topping singles. Yeah yeah, he was a Beatle, the emphasis being on was. Paul McCartney without John, George, and Ringo? Blerg.

– Mariah Carey, right below the Fab Four with a total of 18 #1s. Seriously? The second highest chart-topper of the last 50-ish years? That’s quite shocking, and somehow I only know about half of those songs anyway. Hmm.

– And Usher, down at the bottom, but still kickin’ it with 8 #1s. Again, I only know a few of these songs (no, I’m not so much with chart music – what gave it away?) and the only Usher song I really loved back in the day, “You Make Me Wanna”, apparently only made it to Number 2 in 1997.

And what about The King? Billboard does note that a good number of Elvis’ big hits pre-date the Hot 100. Apparently there is some controversy over how many ‘hit’ singles Elvis actually had, but at least 7 of them were No. 1s on the Hot 100 chart, including these classics:

Elvis Presley – A Big Hunk O’ Love (Elvis’ first Hot 100 #1, 1959)
Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds (Elvis’ last Hot 100 #1, 1969)

Those Zany Charts …

I love Halloween. It’s the best holiday ever and you will never get me to think otherwise. In celebration of this most holy day, I bring you my very own Top 10 Spooky Songs list. There’s a whole ton of lists like this out there – just Google “spooky songs” or “scary songs” and you’ll get loads of results – but I didn’t quite agree with any of them. So here’s my own, based on nothing but my own opinion and love of all things spooky and cheesy.

#10 Ray Parker, Jr., “Ghostbusters”
A dumb, dumb song but, here at 100b, we like dumb. Besides, because of this song, no one will ever be able to answer the question “Who ya gonna call?” like a normal person, so you can’t pretend that it hasn’t had an influence on popular culture.

#9 DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, “Nightmare On My Street”
Sadly, I have no mp3 or video to share for Will Smith’s 80s, ahem, classic “Nightmare On My Street”. Supposedly, there was a video, but it was scrapped when the Nightmare On Elm Street people were unimpressed by the song’s not-so-subtle references to their movies. Listen to the song here.

#8 Tom Petty, “Zombie Zoo”
In a funny coincidence, I put Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever on my iPod just recently, because I always forget I have it and even though I love Tom Petty, I only know a few songs from it. While hanging around, doing our thing, the Tamboosh and I heard “Zombie Zoo” come up on shuffle and, of course, it caught our attention. It being Tom Petty and all, it’s not really about zombies, but it sure it catchy and a zombie zoo (if considered literally, that is) is too great of an image to pass up.

#7 Bobby “Boris” Pickett, “Monster Mash”
Yeah, it’s obvious, but it’s a classic. Plus – did you know that Leon Russell played on “Monster Mash”? Or that the BBC banned it on its original release in 1962 for being ‘too morbid’?! Or that a new version (one of many) called “Monster Rap” was released in 1985 to try and capitalize on the new popularity of rap?!?! (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

#6 Banjo Kate, “Zombie Jamboree”
I don’t know anything about Banjo Kate, or where this version of “Zombie Jamboree” came from (other than the Queens of Noize Folking It Up compilation), but it’s absolutely lovely. And about zombies. Who doesn’t love zombies? In my very quick search about this track, I learned that “Zombie Jamboree” is a pretty old song and has quite an interesting story, go check it out.

#5 The Five Blobs, “The Blob”
So awesome. There’s really nothing else to say. Listen here.

#4 Michael Jackson, “Thriller”
Again – pretty obvious. But there’s dancing zombies. And Vincent Price! This is the ultimate silliness, with a thin layer of cult-y cool. Admit it, you love “Thriller” and its absurdity just makes you love it more.

#3 The Doors, “Riders On The Storm”
Not a spooky song like some of the others on this list, but “Riders On The Storm” creeps me out. It’s all thunderstorms and abandoned dirt roads and perhaps the abandoning of bodies on the side of said roads. Creepy.

#2 The White Stripes, “Red Death At 6:14”
Is it me or does anyone else find the la la la las in this song kind of spooky? It’s like the voice belongs to the ghost of a little girl in pigtails and a pretty pink dress. The whole thing is just weird and vaguely sinister. But in a really good way.

#1 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand”
“Red Right Hand” is, without a doubt, the creepiest song of all time. Nick Cave’s voice is all dark and menacing, the music sounds like the slow, heavy footsteps of a crazed killer. I don’t really get scared easily, but this song might seriously creep me out if I played it alone at night. It’s very threatening and makes the hair on the back on my neck stand up. A Halloween #1 if ever there was one.

Happy Halloween!

Backtrack: Michael Jackson, Bad

Who's Bad?

I was cleaning out one of my old bags for storage and out came Bad. Shamow! I hadn’t listened to the full album in years, so I stopped what I was doing and popped it in my CD player. When Michael sings ‘your butt is mine’, I’m transported back to the first time I saw the “Bad” video and thought he had to be the baddest gangster ever. I was 6 and my only knowledge of gangsters came from cartoon wolves in zoot suits. When it first came out a Rolling Stone review said Bad is a better record than Thriller, I’m not so sure I agree, but it still is very exciting. It debuted at 1 back in 1987 and claimed that spot the next six weeks.

The video for the eponymous single cost more than the “Thriller” video, but where did the money go? Did the dancers’ fees go up that year? Was the cost of studded leather ridiculously high then? Aside from that financial mystery, it is a pretty cool vid. I love that, like in “Beat It”, Michael’s idea of street gangs had more in common with Bernstein and Sondheim’s Sharks and Jets than anything rooted in reality. Here’s the full 16 minute mini movie directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Roberta Flack and Wesley Snipes:

I prefer the Guys ‘n Dolls inspired gangster antics of “Smooth Criminal”, because I have fond memories of me falling on my nose while trying that leany forwardy bit of the video. And I used to love to play the Moonwalker game on my brother’s Sega. It was awesome, I could kill a man with a fedora! I’m actually a bit surprised so many bands have covered this song, because other than ‘you been hit by a smooth criminal’ I still cannot decypher any of the lyrics. What is it about? Who’s Annie? Why does he pronounce the you in ‘Annie are you OK’ like Ricky Ricardo?

The rest of the album is also still thrilling and a stunning walk down Michael’s wacky but wonderful memory lane. Even the lesser known songs, that are generally considered the album’s filler tracks, like “Speed Demon” and the upbeat duet with Stevie Wonder “Just Good Friends”, are great pop songs and balance out the album really well. Whatever Michael’s next otherworldly stunt, there is nothing he can do that could erase the awe-inspiring musical legacy he leaves behind with legendary albums like these under his belt.

   Michael Jackson – Bad
   Michael Jackson ft. Stevie Wonder – Just Good Friends

100b’s News-ish Roundup

Jumping right in to our overview of things that may or may not be considered news, this morning brought us the announcement of this year’s Bafta nominations. Definitely the best news I’ve seen all week is that Control has been nominated for Best British Film, and Samantha Morton for Supporting Actress. I honestly can’t see why she should be nominated and Sam Riley not for his extraordinary performance (though Ms. Morton is quite good herself), but at least he’s been listed for the Orange Rising Star Award (voted for by the public, which means us, so get your votes in). I could treat you to a massive rant about how certain types of actors and movies get ignored by awards, but it’s not like you don’t know and this isn’t really the place (maybe someday, though, if you’re really lucky). In any case, I’d hoped that the Baftas would actually acknowledge Control since it’s British and they’re usually more open than their US cousins so, even with the Sam Riley snub, I’m pretty pleased.

In rather different news, Michael Jackson has yet again found a way to alienate the few fans he has left and, even worse, those of us who still at least consider him a former musical genius. It seems Thriller will be getting a reworking – starting with “The Girl Is Mine”. Not only that, he’ll be ruining what could’ve just stayed a track off of a classic album by including Will.I.Am. This is just wrong and horrible and here’s why: 1. There are thousands, bazillions maybe, of blogs out there showcasing new, exciting, innovative artists so it must be out there to enjoy. Why, oh, why must everybody keep digging in the attic for old stuff to replace new stuff with? Pretty soon, current music will just be a shadow of our glorious music history, a crap-heap of former classics that have been remixed, re-recorded, and reunited and nobody will give a tiny rat’s ass about any of it anymore. Why do the Powers That Decide This Dumbass Crap not understand this? And 2. If you’re an artist trying to pretend you might still be any good, don’t do it by showing us what you used to do well (yeah, I’m talking to you, too, Paul McCartney) and, for god’s sake, don’t do it by including a Black Eyed Pea. Seriously.

And you just can’t get away from it: the planned re-creation of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison concert was cancelled earlier this month. Thank god.

While I take a second to calm down, have a look at this fantastic post from Lefsetz Letter (thanks to No Rock And Roll Fun for pointing it out) about how, while record sales may be declining, it’s not in the way that the big labels want you to think. Best sellers are selling less than they used to, but people still want to buy music. As Lefsetz Letter writes, “People still want music. In prodigious amounts. They just don’t all want the same thing.” Funny isn’t it – I could swear music fans have been saying this for years, ever since the start of all this ‘downloads are killing the music industry’ nonsense started, but I must’ve imagined it. Good thing these new numbers say it for us. This is seriously fascinating stuff, and a great analysis of it, go read more at the link above.

And since the rest of this week’s ‘news’ is just utterly ridiculous (Amy Winehouse’s new hair, Britney’s never-ending antics, rappers on steroids), I’ll just leave you with this song, to remind you of the good times we had back at the beginning of this post, before I got all irritated by stupidity and stuff.

   Joy Division – Interzone

Soundtrack Day: It’s Close To Midnight …

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday – it’s the only one that’s all about fun and no work. No stressful shopping, no huge feast to prepare, no giving thanks. Carving a pumpkin? Awesome. Buying and eating candy? Mmmm. Wearing a costume? Always fun. And – the best part – watching crappy slasher flicks where a quiet and very focused masked man butchers a small town’s delinquent teenagers as a twisted form of revenge for a wrong done to him as a child? Excellent. Halloween is all about enjoying the cheesiest guilty pleasures and there’s nothing better. Happy Halloween, old friends!

   Michael Jackson – Thriller