Monday, December 19, 2005

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes

The British band the Troggs, of course, are best known for their 1966 #1 hit rendition of "Wild Thing," but that sludgy, unexpectedly influential garage rock oddity, with dramatic pauses and an ocarina solo, is just one side to the band. They had a number of hits in the U.K., but they only had one other big American hit, "Love Is All Around," a flower child-friendly song with pastoral strings and a gentle simplicity. Between these two extremes, what brought it all together was Reg Presley's vocals, delivered with his distinctive, snarly voice, and the embrace of basic pop aesthetics. In addition to inspiring garage bands, punks, power-popsters, hippie love rockers, and Jimi Hendrix (who covered "Wild Thing"), they also (allegedly) inspired a cinematic moment. The infamous (and NSFW, mind you) "Troggs Tapes" (linked page includes an MP3) is an 11-minute recording of some sailor-mouthed studio dialogue, reminiscent of a Derek & Clive sketch, and apparently this leaked swear-fest was the basis for the scene in This Is Spinal Tap where the band attempts to record some new material in a studio. I should point out that This Is Spinal Tap inspired the line in "Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old" that goes "There'll be time enough for sex and drugs in Heaven, when our pheromones are turned up to 11." And, close to thirty years after they had formed, the group experienced a slight comeback with the 1992 album Athens Andover, recorded with help from members of R.E.M. (who had covered "Love Is All Around") and the dB's.

In the Raygun interview with Merritt, he mentions the Troggs in his discussion of bubblegum music, and in Chickfactor #6 he lists the Troggs compilation Archaeology as an essential pop recording. And, I'm willing to bet that it's no accident that the titles of the Troggs' two most popular songs are found within the lyrics to two Magnetic Fields songs: "I miss doing the wild thing with you" from "Come Back from San Francisco" and "Desert island, love is all around" from the Holiday track. This week's first selection, "With a Girl Like You," is overshadowed by the two biggest hits in the band's history, but it was a British chart-topper during its time. It's just one big marvelous hook, with proto-Big Star guitar bursts, staccato singing, and irresistible "ba ba ba"s.

The Troggs - "With a Girl Like You"
The Troggs - "Love Is All Around"

Stephinsources will return on January 2.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Originality is passé

The Onion: What do you yourself listen to most?
Merritt: What I listen to most would probably be ABBA. An important band. And basically the people who are doing what I'm doing, which is plagiarize. Stereolab, for instance. [...] I think records should sound somewhat familiar. They should grapple with what's gone before. Right now, there's been no new technology in music for the first time in a long time. [...] There being no new technology, we have only the old stuff to recombine all the time in hopefully slightly new ways.

Plagiarize? Yes, plagiarize. The line between homage and theft gets crossed - so what? Anyone who claims to be doing something totally original in the realm of music should be approached with deep skepticism. Whether it's reusing folk songs collected by Alan Lomax or sampling, mimicking distinctive production styles, or throwing clichés around, Merritt has never shied away from appropriation.

So, there's an obvious legal issue with plagiarism, but there's a way to deal with that. A Time article mentioned Merritt's encounter with the book The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) (well worth the read!), and inside it, there is a discussion of copyright laws and the concept of groove:

...gangsters of the groove from Bo Diddley on down believe they have been ripped off, not only by the business but by all the artists that have followed on from them. This is because the copyright laws that have grown over the past one hundred years have all been developed by whites of European descent and these laws state that fifty per cent of the copyright of any song should be for the lyrics, the other fifty per cent for the top line (sung) melody; groove doesn't even get a look in.

Lyrics are 50%, and the top line melody is the other 50%. That's it! Anything else - rhythms, accompanying melodies, chord progressions - doesn't count.

Merritt's beloved Stereolab has several obsessions, including vintage keyboards (Moog and Farfisa, especially), lounge music, and 70s Krautrock. Many Stereolab songs use the bass drum-abusing motorik beat (a.k.a. "Apache beat"), directly lifted from drummer Klaus Dinger of Neu!, and astute fans have noticed that Stereolab's groove on their epic-lengthed "Jenny Ondioline" is pretty much identical to the one on Neu!'s track "Hallogallo." Similarly, Stereolab borrows heavily from another Krautrock classic, "It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl," by Faust, for two different songs: "Animal Or Vegetable (A Wonderful Wooden Reason...)" and "Anemie," available on their stellar radio session compilation, ABC Music.

Auxiliary Stereolab member Sean O'Hagan has his own band, the High Llamas, which is an outlet for his own pop yearnings and enormous Beach Boys fixation. In O'Hagan, Merritt has a kindred soul, as both share a complete disinterest in writing lyrics that are personal, not to mention the 60s fetish. With sparkling, intricate arrangements featuring a variety of strings and electronics, the High Llamas build upon their influences and make possibly some of the most underappreciated pop music today. Merritt is particularly fond of their 1998 album Cold and Bouncy (which features this week's first selection, "The Sun Beats Down"), one of his TimeOut New York picks for that year, and in an interview in 1999, he mentioned that it was "...the only pop record from the last year that I’ve played more than ten times."

The High Llamas - "The Sun Beats Down"
Stereolab - "Anemie"

By request, the Young Marble Giants tracks are up for another week:

Young Marble Giants - "The Man Amplifier"
Young Marble Giants - "N.I.T.A." (demo)

Monday, December 05, 2005

I want to change my seat just so I can step on everybody's feet

The versatile entertainer Eartha Kitt has led an unusual and extraordinary life so far, one that has crossed paths with such characters as Orson Welles, Secret Service agents, and Batman. But the most memorable thing about her is that unmistakable voice - agile, articulate, and *ROWR* super-hot. Her best-known persona as a live performer is that of a sex kitten cabaret singer, acting the part of a pampered temptress. After humble beginnings, Kitt joined a dance troupe which took her to Europe for a tour; while filling in for an absent singer in Paris, a club owner spotted her talent and then hired her. Orson Welles had caught her act and was quite taken by her, and he cast her in a stage adaptation of Faust. Upon her return back home, she hit the club circuit and Broadway, and in 1953, she recorded her first album for RCA, hitting the Top Five. With great success on the stage, in nightclubs, and on records, Kitt expanded her career by acting in films, and in 1967, she played the role of Catwoman on the Batman TV show.

In the next year, Kitt was invited to a White House luncheon with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, where she spoke out regarding the Vietnam War, allegedly making the First Lady cry. This event caused Kitt to be blacklisted in the States and also to be investigated by the F.B.I., and she lived in Europe for the next decade to escape scorn. Kitt returned to the United States in 1978 to a more welcoming public and government (President Carter even greeted her) and resumed her singing and acting careers. Her recent productions include The Wild Party, Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and Nine (a show which you might remember being mentioned in the Magnetic Fields song "Promises of Eternity").

Why yes, Stephin is a fan, citing her Eartha-Quake boxed set and also seeking her as a vocalist for the second 6ths album. The first song this week is a fun little spazz-out called "I Wanna Be Evil!" which demonstrates Eartha's range as a performer - coy and reserved one minute, crazed and wicked the next. This version is taken from Eartha Kitt in Person at the Plaza from 1965, which reportedly is Kitt's own favorite album. Did Stephin have this song in mind when writing "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin"? Someone should ask him. The second song this week is a "charming Rodgers and Hart tune" from the musical Spring Is Here entitled "Why Can't I?". It's available on Kitt's 1994 album Back in Business, which earned her a Grammy nomination.

Eartha Kitt - "I Wanna Be Evil!"
Eartha Kitt - "Why Can't I?"