Saturday, January 28, 2006

Revolver by The Beatles

Today I got a copy of The Beatles' Revolver. Alongside Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band and Rubber Soul, it is one of my favourite Beatles albums of all time (which, of course, means it is one of my favourite albums, period). First released on August 5, 1966 in Britain, it has since become regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. In the United Kingdom in 1997 it was ranked as the third greatest album of the Millennium in a poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, Classic FM, and The Guardian. A 1998 poll conducted by Q Magazine ranked it at number 2. In both VH1 and the survey that resulted in the book Virgin All Time Top 1,000 Albums it did even better--it was named the greatest album of all time.

The reason for all of the acclaim that Revolver has received over the years is not hard to find. The album represented a number of stylistic advancements and hence a new sophistication that had not been seen in a rock album before. Indeed, the album represents the first use of automatic doubletracking or ADT. Using synchronised recorders and an electronic delay, ADT could duplicate a sound instantly, simultaneously, and nearly exactly. This replaced the previous doubletracking technique in which a singer would have to sing a vocal again or a musican would have to play an instrumental piece again, careful to synchronise everything with the original. Beyond the development of ADT, The Beatles also utilised other unusual techniques for the album. On "I'm Only Sleeping" George Harrison played the notes for his lead guitar backwards, then reversed the tape before mixing it. That is what creates the song's rather somnolent mood. Perhaps the most experimental song on the album was Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows." The song foresaw the rise of psychedelia, which is even more impressive when one considers it was the first song recorded for Revolver. Its unusual sound was created using a number of tape looping effects, processing John's vocal through a Leslie speaker (generally used for instruments, not vocals), reverse guitar, and compressed drums.

The Beatles' various experiments in recording aside, however, it is the songs on Revovler that make it one of the greatest albums of all time. Arguably, this is the album on which George Harrison really began to shine. Indeed, it is the first Beatles album to lead off with a song by George--"Tax Man." That song was his protest against the British tax policies of the time. He also contributed "I Want to Tell You," a guitar driven ode to an inability to express one's feelings.

By this time the Lennon/McCartney partnership was largely a thing of the past, with the two of them writing their own songs with only a few contributions from the other. Regardless, John Lennon and Paul McCartney did some of their best work on Revolver. McCartney's most impressive contribution may well have been "Eleanor Rigby," possibly one of the most identifiable Beatles songs of all time. In the song McCartney paints images of two lonely people, Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, both doomed to live lives of solitude. It was also to Revolver that Paul contributed his best love song besides "Michelle (possibly my favourite Paul song besides "Back in the U.S.S.R.")"--"Here, There, and Everywhere." The song is a simple, yet haunting expression of affection of a man for the lady he loves. Paul also wrote "Good Day Sunshine," inspired by the bouncy, cheery sound of The Lovin' Spoonful.

While Paul contributed "Eleanor Rigby" to Revolver, John Lennon contributed "I'm Only Sleeping," his paen to, well, sleeping. Not all of Lennon's songs on Revolver were so light hearted. Tomorrow Never Knows takes its inspiration from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, while "She Said, She Said" sounds like a contemplation on death.

Indeed, it is on Revolver that The Beatles expanded greatly on the subjects considered acceptable on a rock album. On various songs they covered protest against taxes ("Tax Man"), lonely people ("Eleanor Rigby"), death ("She Said, She Said"), and drug dealing physicians ("Dr. Robert"). The days when The Beatles were content to write about holding hands and not being able to buy love were long past.

Revolver was not just revolutionary in the music it featured, but even in its packaging. Nowhere on the cover does the name "The Beatles" appear. Instead, the entirety of the cover is taken up by a collage created by Klaus Voorman, German artist and the bassist for Manfred Mann. Featured in the collage are line drawings of The Beatles by Voorman and various photographs of the band taken from 1964 onwards. Even the name of the album, Revolver (yet another pun of John's--a record being something that revolves...) was revolutionary for the era.

Quite frankly, I have always thought that Revolver was not simply a must have album for Beatles fan, but for any fan of rock music who has a keen interest in the history of the genre. It was truly a groundbreaking album, in some ways more so than the classic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band. Indeed, Revolver made the later album possible. Of course, even looking beyond its innovations and stylistic experiments, Revolver is quite simply one of the best albums ever released with regards to musical quality.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fayard Nicholas Passes On

Tuesday saw the passing of one of the greatest dancers to ever have ever lived. Fayard Nicholas, who peformed with his younger Harold as the Nicholas Brothers, died from pneumonia and complications from a stroke. He was 91 years old.

Fayard Nicholas was born in 1914 to professional musicians. His father was a drummer and his mother was a pianist at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia. At the theatre the two brothers saw most of the great black Vaudeville acts, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Willie Bryant. Fayard learned to dance by observing these acts and Harold learned to dance by watching Fayard. While still young they started playing theatres, including the Standard Theatre, around Philadephia. While at one of these theatres, the Pearl, the manager of the Lafayette, one of the biggest vaudeville theatres in New York City, saw the brothers and signed them immediately. From the Lafayette the Nicholas Brothers moved onto the famous Cotton Club.

While still at the Cotton Club, the Nicholas Brothers would make their first motion picture short, "Pie Pie Blackbird," backed by Hubie Blake and his orchestra. From shorts the Nicholas Brothers would move onto major motion pictures. Their first major movie was in Kid Millions in 1936. That same year they would make their Broadway debut as part of the Ziegfield Follies. They would later appear on Broadway in 1937 as part of the Rogers and Hart musical Babes in Arms.

It was in the Forties that the Nicholas Brothers made the bulk of their movies. In 1941 they appeared in The Great American Broadcast. In Stormy Weather in 1941 the Nicholas Brothers performed their famous "Jumpin' Jive" routine, which Fred Astaire himself considered one of the greatest musical numbers ever filmed. The routine involved a staircase down which the brothers performed their renowned splits. In none of their early films did the Nicholas Brothers peform alongside white dancers, so great was the racial divide in America at the time. All of this changed with The Pirate in 1948, when the Nicholas Brothers performed alongside Gene Kelly. In my humble opinion, it was one of the few times that the great Kelly was actually outclassed!

Hollywood clearly was not ready to star the Nicholas Brothers in their own films, so they once more took to the stage. They made tours of Asia, Europe, and South America. In Britain in 1948 they gave a command performance before the King of England. Eventually the brothers would go their seperate ways. Harold would appear in the movie Uptown Saturday Night while Fayard would go on to choregraph Black and Blue, for which he won a Tony Award in 1989. They would appear together as the Nicholas Brothers in Sammy, a specialty concert featuring Sammy Davis Jr., on Broadway in 1974.

Over the years the Nicholas Brothers would win a number of awards. They were honoured with the The Kennedy Centre Honours, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Gypsy Award from the Professional Dancers Society, and the American Black Lifetime Achievement Award. The Nicholas Brothers also found their place the Apollo Theater's Hall of Fame and the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame.

Alongside his brother Harold, Fayard was one of the greatest dancers of all time. Quite simply, their routines were spectacular. They performed splits without any support from their hands. They incorporated incredible leaps, backflips, and cartwheels into their routines. They were no mere tap dancers. The Nicholas Brothes combined grace, style, and urbanity with fantastic acrobatics. If it was not for the racial prejudice which existed in the United States in the Forties, I would have no doubt that the Nicholas Brothers would be as famous as either Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.

Needless to say, I am saddened by Fayard Nicholas' passing. Besides Astaire and Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers were my favourite male dancers. They were simply spectacular to watch. Not Kelly quite matched the level of athleticism they displayed in their movies. Indeed, the "Jumpin' Jive" routine in Stormy Weather is simply fantastic. They tapped up the staircase, slid down the steps, and jumped into splits over each others' heads. The Nicholas Brothers were clearly among the most talented dancers of all time. I very seriously doubt that their acheivements will ever be matched.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Chris Penn--Dead at 40

Chris Penn, film actor and actor Sean Penn's younger brother, was found dead in his home in Santa Monica, CA. Police stated that they suspected no foul play. An autoposy is scheduled to determine his cause of death. Penn was 40 years old, although some sources list his age as 43.

Penn started acting at age 12 and made his film debut in Charlie and the Talking Buzzard in 1979. He appeared in such films as Rumble Fish, Footloose, and Pale Rider before making his breakthrough appearance as Nice Guy Eddie Cabot in Reservoir Dogs. Penn would specialise in playing criminals similar to Nice Guy Eddie for much of his career, in such films as Muholland Falls and The Funeral. Among the movies he appeared in were True Romance; To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar; Short Cuts; Rush Hour; and Murder by Numbers. Chris Penn and his brother Sean appeared in only one film together, At Close Range in 1986.

Penn was primarily a motion picture star, so his appearances on television were few. He guest starred on such shows as Seinfeld, CSI: Miami, and Entourage (on which he played himself). He was a regular on the short lived series The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire.

I have to say that I am saddened by the death of Chris Penn. I always enjoyed his performances and in Reservoir Dogs Nice Guy Eddie Cabot was one of my favourite characters. It is truly sad that he was only 40 years old--at my age one generally does not think of someone his or her own age as dying. It is a shame that his life, and hence his career, had to end so soon, as I do think he was one of the better character actors of our time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The End of UPN and the WB?

Today CBS Corp. (which owns UPN) and Time Warner Inc. (which owns the WB) announced that they plan to close UPN and the WB, with plans to open a new network in the fall. The new network (called the CW) will be operated jointly by CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc. in a 50/50 deal.

To tell you the truth, I am not surprised by this news. Neither UPN nor the WB have made tons of money in their nearly eleven years of existence. In fact, in the wake of the closing of the two networks, CBS CEO Les Moonves stated that they were reaching a point where they hoped UPN would break even. And neither network has performed particularly well in the ratings. The WB has has a few hits in its history--Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer come to mind. UPN has done even worse. Aside from Star Trek: Voyager, I don't know that any series on that network has done particularly well. Even Star Trek: Enterprise died on the vine.

While I can understand the reasons why CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc. would want to combine their networks, I find myself not much liking the idea. I have fond memories of both UPN and the WB. UPN was the network on which I watched Nowhere Man, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. The WB was the network on which I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Too, it seems to me that the past fifty years the entertainment industry has become less and less diviserfied. The television networks, movie studios, and so on have increasingly fell into the hands of a few large conglomerates. I don't think this is necessarily a desirable situation. It seems to me that with fewer networks, fewer studios, we also get less variety. With the demise of UPN and the WB, it seems to me that we will have two less television networks, to be replaced only by one. Once more, we have less variety.

Of course, as I said, I can see the reasons for CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc. doing this. Quite simply, neither network was making money. It will be interesting to see how it works out. I have to wonder what shows the two networks will keep (I rather suspect most of UPN's lineup will go). And I have to wonder if over the years they will ever be able to challenge ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. At any rate, I think the move will guarantee the survival of the new network, whereas I think UPN may well have been destined for obscurity.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Tony Franciosa Dead at 77

Actor Anthony "Tony" Franciosa died at age 77 on Thursday following a stroke. Strangely, he died just a week after Shelley Winters, to whom he was married for a time.

Franciosa was born in New York City to Italian American parents. His father was a construction worker and his mother was a seamstress. He trained at the Actor's Studio in New York, one of a number of actors in the Fifites who used the method style of acting. He made his debut on Broadway in the play End As a Man. He would earn a Tony nomination for the play A Hatful of Rain. When he recreated the role as for the movie version, he was nominated for an Oscar.

Franciosa made his movie debut in This Could be the Night in 1957. He appeared in the Elia Kazan classic A Face in the Crowd the same year. With A Hatful of Rain, Franciosa was poised for major stardom. He had parts in such films as The Long, Hot Summer, The Pleasure Seekers, The Swingers, and Career (for which he won a Golden Globe). According to the gossip of the day, however, his behaviour on the set was often less than might be desirable. He allegedly fought with other actors and even sulked in his dressing room.

It is perhaps for this reason that the Sixties saw him increasingly turn to television. He played the lead in the series Valentine's Day in 1964. He would later play Jeff Dillon on The Name of the Game, one of that show's three rotating stars (Robert Stack and Gene Barry were the other two). He would be fired from that series for what NBC executives called "the wear and tear" he made on the set. He would later appear in the series Matt Helm and Finder of Lost Loves. He also appeared in several TV movies and miniseries. His last role was a return to the big screen with City Hall in 1996.

Franciosa was known for his temper. Beyond his behaviour on the set of The Name of the Game, he served a jail term in the Fifties for striking a reporter and engaged in fisticuffs with a director on the set of Matt Helm. Although known for his irascibility, Franciosa had other sides to him as well. He was active in the civil rights movement and even took part in marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King.

Franciosa was a very talented actor, as shown by his performance in Career as an actor who sacrifices everything for his craft. Indeed, his early career feature many such performances. In an interview in 1996, Franciosa said he wasn't quite mature enough psychologically and emotionally" for the attention he received when he broke into Hollywood in the Fifties. Sadly, his immaturity had a negative effect on his career. Considered hot headed and tempermental, he got fewer jobs as the years went by. He went from starring in major motion pictures to television in a few short years.

This was most unfortunate, as it seems to me that Franciosa's biggest chance to shine was on the big screen. He was, quite simply, a movie star. The week to week grind of television was less suited to his talents than motion pictures or the stage. It is for that reason I must say that I am saddened by his passing. For me he will always be a very talented actor who only had a brief time in which to shine.