Saturday, July 11, 2009

A History of Music Videos Part Four

...May I Introduce to You...

The visual jukeboxes of the Sixties would prove to be a flash in the pan, although they did produce a few remarkable music videos ("Tell Him" by The Exciters, "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum, et. al.). Ultimately, the biggest mark in music video history would be made by the promotional films made by many rock artists in the decade, essentially the first modern rock videos. As might be expected, much of the impetus for this revolution in rock video was provided by The Beatles.

To be fair, there had been modern music videos made before the first Beatles promotional films. In 1956 Tony Bennett had made a film for "Strangers in Paradise," although that was more an anomaly than the beginning of regularly made music videos. In 1961 Ozzie Nelson made a film for "Travelin' Man" by Ricky Nelson, but that film like those that followed it were meant to be part of the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It would be The Beatles who would be the first music artists who would make music videos on a somewhat regular basis whose sole purpose was the promotion of songs.

Of course, even before The Beatles made their first promo films they were involved in a project which blended music and film. In 1963 The Beatles had become an outright phenomenon in the United Kingdom, in a short period already becoming among the most successful musical artists of all time there. It was because of this that United Artists signed The Beatles to appear in three feature films, the studio's primary goal to make a profit from the soundtracks associated with those movies. To produce the first Beatles movie, tentatively called Beatlemania, United Artists turned to Walter Shenson, who had produced the comedies The Mouse That Roared and The Mouse on the Moon. To direct the film Walter Shenson hired Richard Lester, an American expatriate who had directed both The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (a favourite of John Lennon) and The Mouse on the Moon.

Prior to the Sixties the average rock 'n' roll musical was a swiftly shot throwaway product meant simply to capitalise on the popularity of a performer (Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock was an exception). Fortunately, director Richard Lester and Alun Owen had other ideas. Together they conceived a film that was as much rock 'n' roll musical as it was an art film, and as much an art film as it was a way out comedy. A Hard Day's Night would revolutionise the rock musical. It would also revolutionise music video. In several of the musical sequences for the film there was no pretence whatsoever of performing. The sequence to "I Should Have Known Better" simply featured The Beatles and Wilfrid Brambell (as Paul's grandfather) playing a game of cards in a train compartment as British schoolgirls watched. The first sequence for "Can't Buy Me Love" simply had The Beatles romping about a field. What is more, the film featured several sequences which were downright surreal, such as The Beatles running beside a train when only a moment previously they had been aboard it. Even the plot of A Hard Day's Night was revolutionary--it was simply a day in the life of The Beatles as they prepared for an appearance on a television show. Not only was A Hard Day's Night a success, but it also received a great deal of acclaim upon its release. It would prove to have a lasting impact on rock video.

The success of A Hard Day's Night was followed by Help! Also directed by Richard Lester, Help! differed primarily from A Hard Day's Night in being shot in colour. It also had a more substantial plot, in which Ringo was stalked by a parody of the Thugee cult because he was wearing their sacrificial ring. Like A Hard Day's Night, Help! featured several surreal sequences and musical sequences in which The Beatles made no pretence in performing.

While The Beatles' movies had a large impact on music video, it would only be a short time after the release of Help! that they would make the first modern rock videos. November 25, 1965 would be the beginning of the modern era of rock video, for it was on that date that The Beatles made their first promotional films. By 1965 The Beatles were so phenomenally successful that it was impossible for them to appear on the number of television shows around the world necessary to promote their singles. Fortunately, a simple solution was developed: create films that could be shown on TV shows throughout the world. On November 25, 1965 films were made for "Help," "Day Tripper," "I Feel Fine," "Ticket to Ride," and "We Can Work It Out." The films were directed by Joe McGrath, who had worked with Richard Lester and would go onto direct feature films of his own. Multiple versions were made of some of the songs: three for "Day Tripper" and "We Can Work It Out" and two for "I Feel Fine." Most of these films were simple performance clips, but one of the two for "I Feel Fine" was not. In what has become known as "the fish and chips" version of "I Feel Fine," The Beatles are not shown performing, but simply eating fish and chips. Seen today the clip is rather dull, which is perhaps why Brian Epstein forbade it from being sold to television stations. Regardless, it broke with the tradition of showing musician playing or pretending to play their songs when filmed.

It was in May 1966 that The Beatles made their next set of promotional films, this time for "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." The clips were directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a former director on Ready, Steady, Go (where he had shot The Beatles among other performers). He would go onto direct the never broadcast special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, as well as feature films, including The Beatles' own Let It Be. Four versions of "Paperback Writer" and three versions of "Rain" were shot, most of them being straight forward performance clips. Two of the clips were notably different, one each of "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." These two clips were shot around Chiswick House in London, and featured The Beatles relaxing around the house's gardens and conservatory and strolling about. It was these two clips, which featured no pretence at performing, which television stations ultimately decided to air.

As revolutionary as these clips for "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" were, they would be surpassed by clips shot in January and February 1967. Directed by Peter Goldmann, the clips for "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" not only did away with any pretence of performing, but utilised storyboarded action, surreal imagery, and The Beatles simply messing about. The most straight forward of the two was "Penny Lane," which featured shots of actual Liverpool landmarks and The Beatles strolling and riding horses down Angel Lane in Stratford. The clip for "Strawberry Fields Forever" was anything but straight forward. It featured surrealistic imagery (such as The Beatles looking through a lens at an old oak tree and a wrecked piano), film run backwards, and coloured filters. It was only three days after the "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" shoot, on February 10 1967, that The Beatles shot a promo film of "A Day in the Life." Directed by Tony Bramwell, it featured The Beatles recording for the orchestral overdubs for the song. It never aired, in part because the BBC banned the song for alleged drug references and later because it was held back for a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band television special that never materialised.

The Beatles' movies and promotional clips were directed by others (although the band undoubtedly had a good deal of say in the promo films). With Magical Mystery Tour The Beatles sought to create their own filmed television special. Shot in September, 1967, it was directed by The Beatles themselves and film director Bernard Knowles. Sadly, the unscripted television special would be raked over the coals when it was aired on Boxing Day in 1967 on the BBC. So disastrous was its critical reception that it would not air in the United States until the Eighties in syndication. Regardless, Magical Mystery Tour is notable for its musical sequences, including "Fool on the Hill (with Paul McCartney simply performing the song on a hill)," "I Am the Walrus (with The Beatles in animal masks and other such surreal imagery)," and "Your Mother Should Know (performed as a Busby Berkeley in a studio)."

It was in November 1967 that Paul McCartney directed three different promotional clips for their current single, "Hello Goodbye." All three clips were basically The Beatles performing the song. The most famous clip featured The Beatles dressed in their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band uniforms, and climaxed with the band joined by hula dancers intercut with shots of The Beatles clowning around. Unfortunately the clips never aired in the United Kingdom at the time of the song's release due to a lip syncing ban on television performance instigated by the British Musicians Union.

Contrary to popular belief, the "Hello Goodbye" promo clips were not the last to be made by The Beatles. The Beatles would make several more promotional clips. "Lady Madonna," directed by Tony Bramwell, featured The Beatles recording "Hey, Bulldog." It was made in March 1968. In September 1968 Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed promotional clips for "Hey, Jude" and "Revolution." In January 1969 he edited the studio versions of "Get Back," "Don’t Let Me Down," and "Let it Be" to footage from the film Let It Be. The Beatles' final promo clip, "Something," was directed by The Beatles' Man Friday and record executive Neil Aspinall, who filmed each of The Beatles separately strolling in a field with their wives.

Largely out of necessity, The Beatles became the first rock band to regularly create rock videos. Their promotional clips would prove revolutionary in breaking with any pretence in showing the band performing or pretending to perform their material. In this way The Beatles paved the way for all rock videos to come.

Look Out, Kid...

The Beatles were not the only artists to make promotional films in the Sixties. And as influential as The Beatles' music videos, there were other artists who made clips that were as influential, if not more so. While The Beatles introduced the idea of promotional films in which there was no pretence of performing, other artists would introduce what were the first music videos with storylines.

Among the most revolutionary promotional clips of the era was one that was not initially intended as a promotional clip. In 1966, for the opening of the documentary Don't Look Back, Dylan came up with the idea of a film for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in which he would hold up cue cards with phrases or words from the lyrics. The film was shot in the back alley of the Savoy Hotel in London, with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth holding a conversation in the background. While intended as the opening for Don't Look Back, the film for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" would be aired as a stand alone music video many years later. It also proved extremely influential, inspiring videos from the punk band Anti-Flag's video for Turncoat" to INXS's video for "Mediate."

It was also in 1966 that The Kinks would create one of the earliest storyline videos. "Dead End Street" featured the Kinks as old London undertakers. The BBC refused to air the clip, stating that it was in bad taste. That same year The Who made a storyline video for "Happy Jack." In the promo clip The Who play foolish burglars who rob a London flat and have a run in with the law. In 1965 The Who had filmed a performance clip for "I Can't Explain."

The Rolling Stones would also make an early storyline video. In 1967 Peter Whitehead (who would go onto make feature films) directed a promotional film for "We Love You." The "We Love You" promo clip featured footage of The Rolling Stones recording in the studio, performance footage, surrealistic imagery, and a storyline based on the obscenity trial of Oscar Wilde (with Mick Jagger playing Wilde). The Rolling Stones made several other promo clips in the Sixties, their output nearly matching The Beatles. In 1966 Peter Whitehead had directed two promo clips for "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?" One clip featured concert footage, footage from New York City, Mick Jagger along the street, and footage from the photo shoot for the single's cover (in which the band dressed in drag).

In 1967 Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed a promo clip, the first Rolling Stones clip shot in colour, for "2000 Light Years From Home." In 1968 he would direct two different promotional films for "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and one for "Child Of The Moon." These were more or less performance clips.

Several other bands would also shoot promotional films in the Sixties. In 1967 The Moody Blues shot a promo clip for their song "Nights in White Satin" in Paris. Besides their Scopitone for the song, Procol Harum also shot a promo for "Whiter Shade of Pale" in which footage from a stage performance was intercut with documentary footage of the Vietnam War. In 1966 The Small Faces shot a promo film for "Hey, Girl" aboard a tram in which they clowned around with female fans. Their 1967 promo for "Get Yourself Together" is an actual storyline video. Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones, dressed as police, pursued Steve Marriott and staged a mock beating when they caught him. That same year they filmed a straight performance clip for "Talk to You." In 1967 The Troggs also shot a promotional film for "Love is All Around." This video has a storyline depicting Reg Presley's affair with a girl aboard a train, psychedelic elements, and concert footage. Pink Floyd produced promotional films for their 1967 songs "Astronomy Domine," Scarecrow," "Arnold Layne," and "Interstellar Overdrive."

For the most part British artists dominated promotional films made in the Sixties, although there were American artists who also made promo clips. In 1967 The Turtles shot a promotional film for their song "She's My Girl." The clip featured footage of The Turtles recording in the studio, The Turtles clowning around in various settings, and footage of a girl in a white dress in such settings as a field and a beach. The Doors also made promotional clips. They made one for their 1967 debut single "Break On Through (To the Other Side)" that was a straight forward performance clip. For their 1968 single "The Unknown Soldier", footage was filmed of the band being shot by a mock firing squad and intercut with footage from the Vietnam War. In 1968 The Beach Boys made a promotional film for their song "Do It Again."

Promo films were not confined to the United Kingdom and the United States, as there were also promo clips made in Australia and New Zealand. Australian band The Master's Apprentices made the first Australian promotional film in 1967 for their single "Buried And Dead." The film combined performance footage with fantasy imagery. The Master's Apprentices also made a promo clip for their 1968 song "Elevator Driver." In 1967 The Loved Ones shot a promotional film for "The Loved One" as part of Peter L. Lamb's short "Approximately Panther." In 1968 The Flying Circus made a promotional film for their single "Hayride." Sadly, none of these promo clips would be seen beyond the Antipodes. Regardless, Australia would prove pivotal in the history of music video in the Seventies.

While many of these promotional films would be highly influential, in the United States the widest exposure given to anything related to music video would be through a television sitcom. The Monkees was the brainchild of Bob Rafelson (yes, one day feature film director Bob Rafelson). With the success of such folk artists as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary in the early Sixties, Rafelson considered a TV show featuring a folk group. All of this changed in 1964 when Beatlemania swept the United States. The Beatles' movies A Hard Day's Night and Help! proved enormous successes. With Beatlemania in mind, Bob Rafelson decided that a comedy about a rock group, shot in the surreal, free wheeling style of The Beatles movies, might make for a better series.

It is for that reason that many have claimed that The Monkees was heavily influenced by A Hard Day's Night. In truth, however, The Monkees was influenced more by The Beatles' second movie Help!. Just as Help! placed The Beatles in a contrived situation, drawn in part from serials and spy movies, so too would the average Monkees episode place the band in one contrived situation or another. Through the run of the show The Monkees faced spies, gangsters, monsters, hillbillies, aliens, and so on. In the end the show parodied genres ranging from spy drama to horror to caper films. In some respects, however, Bob Rafelson took The Monkees further than either of the two Beatles movies. On The Monkees jokes, sight gags, non sequiturs, and even the rare drug reference whizzed by at light speed. In many ways the show was more influenced by the Marx Brothers than The Beatles. What is more, The Monkees was even more surreal than either of The Beatles movies. Such effects as speeded up footage, solarisation, backwards visuals, and surreal imagery were used on a regular basis.

Being a show about a struggling rock band, music was an important part of The Monkees. In fact, it was planned from the beginning that The Monkees would release singles and albums. Songs would be worked into the show in any number of ways. Most commonly they would be used in what the production team referred to as "romps." The romps were often part of the plot of an episode in which The Monkees perform or in which they were on the run from someone. Other times the romp might simply be part of an episode as a fantasy sequence (such at the "Last Train to Clarksville" romp in the episode "The Monkees at the Movies"). Other times the romp may simply be a video segment tacked onto the end of an episode. Many of the romps eschewed any pretence of performing and some even had storylines of their own (such as the aforementioned "Last Train to Clarksville" romp). Regardless of whether they were part of an episode or tacked onto the end, nearly all of the romps on The Monkees could stand on their own as music videos.

The Monkees proved phenomenally successful with the youth market. Their albums and singles success at times matched The Beatles. While the television show did poorly in the ratings, it was one of the top rated shows with young people. Unfortunately, this was not enough and the series was cancelled after only two seasons. The Monkees remains historic as the first television show to feature anything approaching music videos each and every week.

This would not be the end of The Monkees. Bob Rafelson wanted to become a feature film director. His first film, entitled Head, would star The Monkees. Head was essentially a plotless collection of sequences, many of them surreal. As might be expected, the film featured several music sequences. Although it bombed at the box office, it would achieve a cult following. While perhaps not as influential on music video as the TV series itself, Head would have an impact. As to The Monkees themselves, Michael Nesmith would not only prove very influential in the history of music video in the Seventies, but even pivotal to it.

Given that short films were finally being made for the sole purpose of promoting songs, the Sixties can be considered the beginning of the era of the rock music video. Most of the promotional films made in the Sixties are virtually indistinguishable from their counterparts made in the Seventies and the Eighties. Many of them eschew any pretence of performing, some of them use surreal imagery, some of them even have their own storylines. While the music industry had not reached the point where it was making promotional films or videos for each every single which came out, music videos were not a rarity in the Sixties. And in the Seventies events would unfold that would lead to the music videos being produced for each and every single released, the first shows dedicated entirely to music video, and the first steps towards entire channels dedicated to music videos.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A History of Music Videos Part Three

Le Scopitone

After the heyday immediately following Hollywood's adoption of sound, the number of musical shorts declined from the Thirties into Forties. While musical shorts made for the big screen were less common in the Forties than they had been in the Thirties, there would be well over a thousand musical shorts made for the Panoram visual jukebox, the famous Soundies. Unfortunately, by the late Forties the Soundies would be history, while the advent of network broadcast television in the United States would send movie short subjects of any kind into a sharp decline. This did not mean the end of musical shorts, however, as television soon took up the slack. Thousands of Snader Telescriptions were made from 1950 to 1954. Later in the decade Tony Bennett would invent the music promo film when he made one for his song "Stranger in Paradise." In 1961 Ozzie Nelson filmed what may have been the first rock video, "Travelin' Man," performed by his son Ricky Nelson.

While television would be the driving force in the creation of music videos from the Sixties onwards, the Sixties would also see another source for short musical films. It was in the early Sixties that the visual jukebox returned with a vengeance. Although it was less successful in the United States than the Panoram, the Scopitone would become the most famous visual jukebox of all time.

While the Scopitone may have been the best known visual jukebox of the Sixties, it was hardly the only one. In Europe, at least, in the late Fifties the visual jukebox was an idea whose time had come. It was in July 1956 that the original patent for the Scopitone was filed by the Compagnie d'Applications Mecaniques a L'Electronique au Cinema et a l'Atomistique (CAMECA) in France. It was on October 12, 1959 that Raffaello Nistri filed a patent for the Cinebox, a visual jukebox invented by Societá Internazionale Fonovisione in Rome. While the French Scopitone may have been the first to have been patented, it would be the Italian Cinebox that would be the first to be introduced to the public. The first Cinebox was introduced to the press in Paris on February 25, 1960. The first Scopitone was introduced to the press a little over a month later, on March 28, 1960.

In Europe the Cinebox proved to be something of a success. With success in Europe, Cinebox would make its way to the United States. It was in 1963 that David Rosen, a distributor for jukebox and coin operated machine manufacturer Rowe-AMI, tested the Cinebox in the United States by placing one jukebox in a café and the other in a luncheonette. Even though the Cineboxes featured only films from Italian and British artists, they passed the test with flying colours--the one in the luncheonette alone made $183. David Rosen became the distributor for Cineboxes in the United States. Naturally, this meant that there would have to be Cinebox reels featuring American artists. Of course, David Rosen also figured out another way to make money from the Cinebox. When not in use, advertisements would be flashed on a Cinebox's screen.

The Cinebox films would ultimately include some well known artists and even a few rock acts. Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, The Fortunes, Françoise Hardy, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Hollies, and Peggy Lee all made Cinebox films. While very few of the Cinebox films possessed storylines of any sort, they could be sophisticated. The Hollies performed "Little Lover" on a set designed to look like a garden party. Jackie Lee and the Raindrops performed "The Loco-Motion" in a film with a railroad theme, complete with dancing men in bowlers and with brollies (they looked a lot like John Steed from The Avengers). The film to Paul Anka's "Remeber Diana" even had a bit of a storyline, with Anka pursuing a young woman--it could almost pass for a music video from the Eighties.

Unfortunately, the Cinebox would not be a success in the United States. The company went bankrupt in 1965 and was reorganised as Intersphere Development Corporation. The Cinebox jukebox itself was renamed Colorama. Unfortunately, the Colorama would prove no more successful than the Cinebox. With little money to spend on talent after the bankruptcy, Intersphere simply filmed such subjects as the Go-Go Girls at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Chicago. The Colorama did not last long. As to the reason for the failure of the Cinebox, it seems most likely that it was a case of simple competition. Although its videos were more sophisticated and it more regularly utilised rock acts, the Cinebox could not compete with Le Scopitone.

Even in Europe the Scopitone was more successful than the Cinebox. The visual jukebox was an outright phenomenon in its homeland of France. The Scopitone spread to West Germany, where it also proved to be a huge success. Although the French Scopitone films varied in quality, some of them could be quite sophisticated, even by today's standards. The Scopitone for Jean Ferrat's "Ma Mome" consisted of a young woman watching the various customers in a cafe, shot in the style of La Nouvelle Vague. The Scopitone for "noir ces noir ( a cover of Los Bravos' "Black is Black")" by Johnny Halliday (the French answer to Elvis Presley) is shot entirely in a room with a black and white chequerboard pattern--the floor, walls, and ceiling all look like a giant chessboard. It could easily pass for a modern rock video. Another very sophisticated French Scopitone is also probably the best known French Scopitone in the United States. "Tous les garçons et les filles" by the legendary Françoise Hardy was shot around an amusement park.

Given the sophistication of many of the French Scopitones, it is clear that they wee not directed by mere hacks. Indeed, movie director Claude LeLouch began his career directing Scopitones, making him the first man in history to go from directing music videos to directing feature films. In this respect he is the spiritual ancestor of directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, who both got their start in music videos.

Although wildly successful in France and much of the rest of Europe, the Scopitone would receive its first taste of failure in 1963. In June 1963 Ditchburn Equipment Ltd., the British distributor of Wurtlitzer jukeboxes, placed Scopitone jukeboxes in various parts of the United Kingdom through an agreement with Radiovision Ltd., the officially designated Scopitone distributor. Unfortunately, Radiovision Ltd. would meet with resistance from the British Phonographic Industry, the British record makers. Without cooperation from record makers in the United Kingdom, the Scopitone would ultimately fail in the United Kingdom. As a result, very few Scopitone films were made in the United Kingdom. That having been said, the United Kingdom would make one of the best known Scopitone films, one of the very few made in English to feature rock performers. In 1963, just as the Scopitone was being introduced in the United Kingdom, a Scopitone was made of The Exciters' hit "Tell Him." The film is fairly sophisticated for the time, featuring The Exciters filmed in Paris.

While the Scopitone failed in the United Kingdom due to the British record industry, it would be a number of other factors which would doom the Scopitone in the United States. The Scopitone came to the United States by way of entrepreneur and attorney Alvin Malnik. In October 1963 he acquired the rights to Scopitone in North America with the intent of bringing the visual jukebox to the United States. In April 1964 Malnik sold 80% of Scopitone, Inc. to Tel-A-Sign, a company which manufactured neon signs for everything from filling stations to bowling alleys. Malnik remained as president of Scopitone, Inc. Sadly, neither CAMECA, who owned and originated the Scopitone, nor Tel-A-Sign realised that Alvin Malnik had ties with the Mob, primarily in the form of Meyer Lansky, best known as "the Mob's Accountant." Selling the rights to Scopitone in the United States to Malnik was then the first misstep in bringing the Scopitone to North America.

Regardless, 1964 in Miami and Miami Beach Tel-A-Sign conducted a successful test run of the Scopitone. Harman-ee Productions, owned by Debbie Reynolds, became the first company in the United States responsible for producing Scopitone films. Reynolds herself would star in the first American Scopitone, a rather strange cover "If I had a Hammer." At that point the future for Scopitone in the United States looked bright. In the summer of 1964 Time magazine reported that there were already 500 Scopitone jukeboxes in place throughout the United States. By the summer of 1965 800 Scopitone machines were in use. At its peak, there were around 10,000 Scopitone machines in use in the United States. Unfortunately, while Scopitone could have survived given Malnik's ties with the Mob, other mistakes would be made that would also cause its downfall in the United States.

The biggest mistake may well have been in the choice of talent to star in Scopitone films. From the beginning it was decided to entirely ignore the youth market. Very few rock acts would ever appear in American Scopitones. Instead Harman-ee Productions and the other Scopitone film production companies chose to feature artists who appealed to an older crowd, such as Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, Bobby Rydell, Neil Sedaka, Kay Starr, and Bobby Vee, among others. Strangely enough, the Scopitone films would produce their own stars. Blonde bombshell Joi Lansing is perhaps best known for her bit parts in many movies, her role as Shirley Swanson on The Bob Cummings Show, and her recurring role as Gladys Flatt on The Beverly Hillbillies, but in Scopitones films she was a star. At least Joi Lansing had a career outside of Scopitones. January Jones (not to be confused with the actress from Mad Men) appears to have been a star only in Scopitones--she seems to have had no career elsewhere! With regards to rock acts, only a very few made it into American Scopitone films: The Condors, The Hondells, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Procol Harum. Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" would be the best American Scopitone ever made. Shot around London, with scenes from a field and various places in the city, it was a well done film, without the usual camp and lasciviousness typical in American Scopitones.

Indeed, another misstep in the path to success for the Scopitone in the United States were the Scopitone films themselves. In her essay "Notes on Camp," first published in the Partisan Review in 1964, Susan Sontag counted the young medium of Scopitone films as camp. Sontag was fully justified in this. While the French Scopitones could be very sophisticated, the American Scopitones were pure camp, kitsch at its very worst. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joi Lansing's "Web of Love." In this Scopitone at one point Lansing is sitting in a boiling kettle and at another point literally caught in a gigantic web, all the while scantily clad. The American Scopitone films could also be extremely risqué even by today's standards. One such Scopitone even crossed the line as far as its featured artists were concerned. The Back Porch Majority was a folk group established by New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks, with the same clean cut image as The New Christy Minstrels. Despite this, their Scopitone film to the song "The Mighty Mississippi" featured a story line in which a riverboat gambler has his shirt taken (literally) by three beautiful women. Among its highlights were a striptease in silhouette and several shots of women's bottoms (clothed, but still scandalous given the era). Upon seeing the film, The Back Porch Majority promptly sued Scopitone, Inc. for $1 million on the allegation that the company had damaged their image with the film. Contrary to popular belief, the lawsuit did not cause the downfall of the Scopitone, but it certainly did not help.

Strangely enough, despite the lewdness and sheer sexism of many of the American Scopitone films, there was never any public outcry over the Scopitone. This was perhaps just as well, for Scopitone, Inc. had other problems worrying them. Having wholly ignored the youth market and the rock acts that were seeing extreme success in the mid-Sixties, Scopitone found itself losing money by 1966. In October 1966 Scopitone cut prices on its machines and films, supposedly to remain competitive. In fact, unless one counts standard jukeboxes, Scopitone had no real competition by 1966--Cinebox was on its last legs. The truth is that in ignoring rock music and in producing films that were not very well made and often risqé for the era, Scopitone, Inc. had cut its own throat.

The waning popularity in the Scopitone was only one factor in its downfall. Another was simply mismanagement. Much of this may well have been due to Alvin Malnk. Among the stockholders of Scopitone, Inc. was Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo (a friend of Meyer Lansky and a convicted felon) and similar characters. In 1966 Alvin Malnik was secretly indicted by the United States attorney in New York for using the mail to defraud Scopitone investors. Eventually Scopitone, Inc. and even Tel-A-Sign would be under investigation not only from the United States attorney in New York, but the Securities and Exchange Commission as well. The legal ramifications resulting from the mismanagement and shady business dealings of Scopitone, Inc. would last well into the Eighties. Ultimately, it was not simply Scopitone's declining popularity that spelled the end for the visual jukebox, but questionable business dealings as well.

By 1969 the Scopitone was history in the United States. The visual jukebox would live on in its native home of France, lasting into the modern era of rock video. It was in 1978, only three years before MTV launched, that the last Scopitone was made. It is difficult to say why the Scopitone went out of fashion in France, although it could well be the introduction of colour television and the development of the rock promo clip, which became a dominant force in music in the Seventies. Regardless, this would make the Scopitone the most successful visual jukebox in the entire world.

While the Cinebox and Scopitone were both European in origin, The Sixties would see the first visual jukebox of American origin since the Panoram. In 1966 Henry A. Schwartz filed a patent for the Color-Sonic, a new visual jukebox. Color-Sonics were manufactured by Color-Sonics Inc., also known as the National Company Inc. With regards to the technology involved, the Color-Sonics jukebox was an improvement over both the Cinebox and the Scopitone. The machines used continuous loop cartridges, which were both more durable and more easily replaced than the film reels used by Cinebox and Scopitone. The Color-Sonics films were also shot on 35 mm, as opposed to the 16 mm film used for Scopitone and Cinebox.

Color-Sonics Inc. had big plans for their visual jukebox, with plans to have 5000 machines in place by 1968. The films themselves were made at Paramount Studios by Official Films, which was headed by Robert Blees, a former producer of TV shows such as Bus Stop and Combat. In need of someone to direct the Color-Sonics films, Blees contacted his friend Robert Altman. In the mid-Sixties feature film and television director Altman was at the low point of his career and in much need of cash. Altman agreed to direct three of the films, although in the end he directed four: "Girl Talk" by Bobby Troup, a short called "The Party" set to the song "Whipped Cream" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and two shorts featuring Lili St. Cyr. As might be expected, Altman's Color-Sonics films are a good deal more sophisticated than the Scopitone and Cinebox films of the time. "Girl Talk" has Troup walking through the Paraphernalia boutique in Beverly Hills. "The Party" was set at a party, through which actor Robert Fortier makes his way Buster Keaton style. Color-Sonics produced at least one other fairly sophisticated short, the famous film of "These Boots Were Made for Walking" by Nancy Sinatra.

Despite a few sophisticated films and technology superior to either the Scopitone or the Cinebox, the Color-Sonics jukebox failed. Quite simply, it had arrived late on the scene in a market already dominated by the Scopitone. The first American visual jukebox since the Panoram was gone by 1969.

Visual jukeboxes were hardly the only source for music video in the Sixties. While American Scopitone producers were wasting their time on high camp and sex, four young men from Liverpool were launching not only a revolution in music, but in video as well. With the arrival of the rock promo clip in the Sixties, the modern age of rock video was about to begin.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A History of Music Videos Part Two

The Soundie and the Fury

Once the novelty of sound had worn off, musical short subjects declined as the Thirties wore on. This is not to say that musical shorts did not continue to be made. While the Fleischer Brothers' Screen Songs series would come to an end in 1938, it would be revived by Famous Studios and last until 1950. Before making her feature film debut, Betty Hutton appeared in a series of musical shorts made by Paramount. Various jazz artists also appeared in musical shorts, most notably Louis Jordan (a rock 'n' roller before there was rock 'n' roll).

One huge step in the evolution of music video was the release of Walt Disney's feature film Fantasia in 1940. Fantasia was an incredible achievement--an animated feature set to classical music. It contained no dialogue, with the only words spoken being host Deems Taylor's introductions to the various segments of the film. Although now considered a landmark in animation, Fantasia opened to mix reviews and bombed at the box office.

Fantasia, with storylines set to classical music, was very much a conceptual piece. This contrasts with most of the musical shorts made in the Thirties and Forties, which were simply performance clips. It was rare that a musical short of the era featured a storyline or centred on a certain concept in the way that today's conceptual music videos do. Strangely enough, the first real progress towards conceptual music videos in some time would not be made on the big screen, but in a more surprising venue: the jukebox. In the late Thirties the visual jukebox--a jukebox with a screen that would play short musical films--was an idea whose time had come. In 1938 Dr. Gordon Keith Woodward, a Los Angeles dentist, invented the Cinematone, what may have been the first coin operated movie jukebox. With his partner W. P. Falkenburg of Ray-O-Lite, one of the top companies in coin operated arcade machines, Woodward leased studios in Hollywood with the intent of making musical shorts for the Cinematone. Ultimately Woodward and Falkenburg decided to focus their attention on their Pennyphono jukebox, which played LP records instead of singles, and ceded the Cinematone to a man named Earl Burnham. Sadly, the Cinematone never saw any real success.

Sam Sax, who had been the head of Warner Brothers in the United Kingdom and later the head of Vitaphone, developed another visual jukebox, the Phonovision. The Phonovision Corporation of America planned to initially use Vitaphone shorts, while it made preparations to shoot its own musical shorts in a studio in Brooklyn. In 1940 Phonovision claimed to have received forty thousand orders for their machines. The Phonovision proved no more successful than the Cinematone. Another, even less successful attempt at a visual jukebox was the Nickel Talkies.

In nearly every case these visual jukeboxes failed simply because they did not have huge libraries of musical shorts to display. As a result there was a great deal of repetition in their playlists. Before a visual jukebox could be successful, it would require someone capable of producing a large number of musical shorts very swiftly. Fortunately, there was such a man. James "Jimmy" Roosevelt was the son of the current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was also a successful businessman in his own right, doing quite well in the insurance industry. It was Jimmy Roosevelt's dream, however, to enter motion picture production. His wish was granted in 1939 when he became a vice president working for Samuel Goldwyn. By the end of 1939 he had created Globe Productions, planning not only to produce movies, but to purchase movie theatres and operate radio stations. While Roosevelt did produce a few films such as Pot o' Gold and Easy Street, his dreams of a multimedia empire would not come to fruition.

Roosevelt would leave his mark in pop culture history, courtesy of the Mills Novelty Company. Based in Chicago, the Mills Novelty Company had been around since 1905 and was one the most successful manufacturers of jukeboxes, slot machines, and vending machines. In 1939 they developed their own visual jukebox, the Panoram. The Panoram possessed the sophisticated art deco design for which the Mills Brothers Novelty Company was known. It played a a continuous loop 16 mm reel, which was projected onto its screen. Each loop consisted of eight films averaging about three minutes. Unfortunately, because the loop was continuous, customers had no means of selecting a specific song or artist, as with traditional phonograph jukeboxes.

Of course, the Panoram required someone to actually make the musical shorts that it would play. Through Globe Productions Jimmy Roosevelt produced seven demonstration shorts. The Mills Novelty Company then founded the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America and installed Jimmy Roosevelt as its president ("Soundies" being the term they gave the musical shorts to be played on the Panoram). It was on September 16, 1940 that the Panoram made its debut.

Roosevelt did not stay with the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America for long. After giving the Panoram and Soundies a good deal of promotion, he stepped down as its president due to military obligations (at the time he was a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserves). He was replaced by the corporation's vice president, Gordon Mills. The first official Soundies were released on Jnauary 23, 1941. Initially Soundies proved to be a big hit. Mills Novelty Company and the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America made millions of dollars in 1941. Even in small towns there were reports of the Panoram jukeboxes doing very brisk business. At the peak of Panoram production, the Mills Novelty Company was producing 75 units a day.

As mentioned before, the Panoram was not the only visual jukebox in existence in the early Forties. There were several others besides Cinematone, Phonovision, and Nickel Talkies. Talk-A-Vision was founded in the autumn of 1940 and headed by John E. Otterson, former head of Paramount Pictures. The Vis-o-Graph Corporation of America was established in 1941 and headed by the singer Rudy Valee and William Kemble. There was also Phonofilms Inc. None of these companies lasted very long.

While the Panoram would prove to be the most successful visual jukebox in American history, it would have more than its share of problems. Both the movie industry and the traditional jukebox industry viewed the Soundies as a threat. Worse yet was the threat of government intervention. In late 1941 Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana threatened to bring about a Senate investigation of the Soundies, which he considered "...lewd and lascivious and would not be permitted on any decent stage or motion picture screen in the country." Fortunately, a Senate investigation never occurred, perhaps because the Soundies were never "lewd and lascivious," not even by the standards of the Forties. A far worse problem for the Soundies was a particularly long American Federation of Musicians strike that lasted from 1943 to 1944. Without musicians, the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America was forced to use pre-existing tracks or to have singers perform a capella. The musicians' strike would seriously hurt the popularity of Soundies, but ultimately it would be World War II restrictions that would spell their doom. In 1943 there were as many as 10,000 Panoram jukeboxes in operation. By 1946 that number had slipped to only 2,000.

Regardless, from 1941 to 1946, over 1000 Soundies were made. One reel of eight shorts was released each week, with more being released during holidays. They covered a wide array of genres, from big band swing to jazz to blues to hillbilly music (what would later be called "Country"). The Soundies also featured a large number of famous and soon to be famous performers: Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Doris Day (who made her film debut in Soundies), Jimmy Dorsey, Spike Jones, Kay Starr, and Fats Waller, among others. Some of the individual musical shorts were even released to movie theatres.

For the most part the Soundies were straight forward performance clips. That is not to say that there were not Soundies which today would be identified as conceptual music videos. In fact, actress, dancer, and singer Dorothy Dandrige figured in at least two Soundies centred around specific concepts or possessing a storyline. In "Cow Cow Boogie" Dorothy Dandrige played a singer in an Old Western saloon filled with African American cowboys (which, I might point out, is historically accurate--a large proportion of cowboys were African American). She also appears in The Mills Brothers' "Paper Doll," playing a doll only a few inches in height through the magic of special effects. As might be expected, Louis Jordan made a few conceptual Soundies as well. Some of Louis Jordan's Soundies were taken from two-reel films released to theatres. One of these, "Buzz Me," started as a straight performance clip, then shifted to girl relaxing on a sofa and waiting by a phone as Jordan continued to sing. While there were never very many conceptual Soundies, they were not entirely unknown.

The last Soundies were made in 1946. Although they had been wildly successful at their peak, war time restrictions had taken their toll. After nearly six years of existence, the Panoram jukebox would be a thing of the past.

Television Killed the Movie Star

The death of the Panoram roughly coincided with the first, regularly scheduled network television broadcasts in the United States. Still very much in its infancy, network television had no real impact on the Soundies, but they would have an enormous impact on the history of music videos. Indeed, it is because of television that they are called music videos, not music films.

Just as the average person probably does not realise how far back the history of music videos extends, most people probably do not realise how far back television's history with music videos go. The first music videos made specifically for television emerged a full three decades before MTV made its debut. In the early Fifties local television stations often had empty spaces on their schedules. This might take place to due to a fifteen minute space between programmes or a few minutes left after a newscast or sporting event. Real estate developer Louis D. Snader came up with a way to fill those empty spaces in television schedules, the Snader Telescriptions.

The Snader Telescriptions were short musical films made specifically for television. They were produced by Louis D. Snader and directed by Duke Goldstone (who started in Soundies and later worked on George Pal's Puppetoons). Like the Soundies before them, the Snader Telescriptions covered a wide array of genres, from pop to jazz to country. They also featured a number of well known performers, including Cab Callaway, Duke Ellington, The Ink Spots, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and others.

The Snader Telescriptions were produced from 1950 to 1954. They were shot live with no lip syncing. Because of this none of the Snader Telescriptions possessed storylines in the way that many more recent videos do. None of them could be described as conceptual music videos. Between 10 or 20 Telescriptions would be made in a single day. In the end they would number in the thousands. They would air on American television for many, many years.

Concurrently with the Snaders Telescriptions was another important part of the history of music videos on television, although it was a show which had debuted on radio in 1935. Your Hit Parade featured the top songs of the day as performed by the show's cast. When Your Hit Parade moved to television in 1950, it found itself faced with a problem. Songs can be popular for weeks at a time. To keep from seeming too repetitive, Your Hit Parade started dramatising songs with skits. These skits sometimes even involved large and elaborate sets. Although the skits from Your Hit Parade would not be recognised as music videos today, they did point to a direction that music videos could and did eventually take. In this respect Your Hit Parade was important in the history of conceptual music videos.

It would be crooner Tony Bennett who would take the next big step in the history of music video. In 1956 his single "Stranger in Paradise" proved to be a hit in the United Kingdom. He was invited there to perform, but he only appeared in Glasgow, Scotland and Liverpool, England. To rectify the fact that he had no appearances scheduled in London, Bennett made a film of himself walking through Hyde Park, set to "Stranger in Paradise." The film was distributed to TV stations in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and played on local stations on shows similar to American Bandstand. Preceded by musical film shorts, Soundies, and Snader Telescriptions, Tony Bennett did not invent the music video, but he did invent the music promotional film or music promo clip, a music video meant primarily to promote a song on television. Music promo films would become increasingly common in the next decade.

Of course, the Fifties was the decade in which rock 'n' roll emerged or, at the least, was recognised as a genre for the first time. It would be J. P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, who would made what were the first rock videos. On one day in 1958 The Big Bopper made videos for "Chantilly Lace", "Big Bopper's Wedding", and "Little Red Riding Hood". By the standards of rock videos in the 1980s,The Bopper's videos were rather primitive, more resembling musical sequences on variety shows than modern day music videos. Regardless, they were the first videos made for rock 'n' roll songs. It has also been claimed that The Big Bopper coined the term "music video" in an interview in a magazine in 1959, although I have found no articles that mention the exact magazine.

Another early rock video emerged from a much more unlikely source. Actor and band leader Ozzie Nelson developed his own radio sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, in 1944. The show was very much a family affair. While his sons would be played on the radio show by actors until 1949, his real life sons would assume those roles thereafter. In 1952 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet made the move to television. His son Ricky Nelson was very serious about a career in rock 'n' roll, producing his first hit singles in 1957. Naturally, Ozzie sought to promote his son's career through performances of his songs on the television sitcom.

As time passed, however, it became more and more difficult for Ozzie and his writers to work the songs into the plots of the sitcom's episodes. Ozzie then hit upon a novel solution. In 1961 Ozzie filmed Ricky performing his song "Travelin' Man" and combined this with travelogue footage and stock footage from the show. The result is what may have been one of the earliest rock videos. The "Travelin' Man" film was tacked onto the end of an episode. Thereafter "Travelin' Man" went all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts. In this respect it confirmed the power of rock video to promote a song.

As it turned out, "Travelin' Man" was the only the beginning. The Sixties would see yet more music videos produced to be aired on television, as well as a television series that would include music videos in its episodes on a regular basis. Television would not be alone in its production of music videos, as the decade of the Sixties would see the return of the visual jukebox. The Sixties would not simply be the decade of The Beatles and The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. It would also be the decade of Le Scopitone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A History of Music Videos Part One


In the English speaking world, music videos have been a part of people's lives for the past thirty years. Many became aware of them in the Seventies, when music videos received exposure on various television venues. Others may have only become aware of them after the launch of MTV (short for Music Television). What many people may not realise is that the history of music videos goes much further back than the Seventies. In fact, depending upon how one defines the term, "music videos" could go back to the very advent of talkies.

Of course, if one defines the term music video literally, then it would be anything shot on videotape to a song or piece of music. The problem with this definition is that many of what people today consider music videos are shot on film, not videotape. Anyone viewing the films made to promote The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" or Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" would identify them as "music videos," yet all three were shot on film. A music video should then perhaps best be defined as any film or video set to a song or a piece of music. If so defined, the history of music videos began decades before MTV had even been conceived.

Lights! Camera! Action! The Beginning of Music Video

While many, perhaps most people, realise that music videos did not begin with MTV, most probably do not realise that the history of music videos goes back to filmmakers' earliest experiments with sound film. In fact, if anyone should be given the credit for inventing music video, it should perhaps be legendary inventor Lee De Forest. It was in 1919 that De Forest filed his first patent for sound on film technology, the De Forest Phonofilm process. Unable to interest the movie studios in his invention, De Forest made his own short films using Phonofilm. He debuted these films on April 15, 1923 at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City. De Forest filmed various vaudeville acts, some of who were musical performers. In doing so, Lee De Forest inadvertently created the first music videos.

While De Forest failed to interest the movie studios, he did interest two legendary animators. Max and Dave Fleischer utilised the Phonofilm process for their series of Song Car-Tunes. The Song Car-Tunes were a series of short, three minute animated films featuring popular songs at the time. The Song Car-Tunes were historic in being the first animated films to use sound, many years before either Paul Terry's "Dinner Time" or Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie." They also introduced another innovation beyond sound, utilising the "Follow the Bouncing Ball" device to encourage the audience to sing along. Essentially, the lyrics would appear at the bottom of the screen, with a bouncing ball bouncing across the words to help audiences know when a certain syllable is to be sung. It would later be used in other musical shorts, as well as on television shows. If Lee De Forest invented music videos, then arguably the Fleischer brothers were the first to produce them commercially.

While the Fleischer brothers pioneered animated shorts using sound on film technology, European animator Oskar Fischinger was also a bit of a pioneer. From 1926 to 1927 Fischinger made short, animated films set to music, through synchronising animated films to phonograph records. While certainly a precursor of the music video, it is then difficult to determine whether his films can indeed be considered true music videos. If films synchronised to phonograph records can be included under the heading of "music video," then could films synchronised to bands orchestras, and singers also be included?

Despite the fact that Lee De Forest never interested the studios in his Phonofilm process, his invention would lead to the advent of talkies in a round about fashion. De Forest worked with Theodore Case and Freeman Harrison Owens in perfecting Phonofilm. Unfortunately, the legendary inventor would fall out with both men. Theodore Case then took his patents directly to William Fox, head of Fox Film Corporation (the forerunner of 20th Century Fox). The end result was the Fox Movietone process, the first sound on film process utilised by a major studio. F. W. Murnau's 1927 movie Sunrise was the first film to use the process, although only for sound effects and musical accompaniment (not dialogue).

Concurrent with the development of sound on film, yet others were working on a process whereby a movie's soundtrack was recorded onto discs. An early version of this process, developed by Orlando Kellum, was used to add sound to a sequence in D. W. Griffith's 1921 movie Dream Street in which Griffith introduced the mvoie. Among the leaders in the development of sound on disc was Western Electric, who started research into both sound on film and sound on disc in the early Twenties. They based the sound film business out of Western Electric's Bell Laboratories in Brooklyn, New York. By 1925 a then small movie studio, the Warner Brothers Studio, bought Western Electric's sound on disc business and began their own experiments out of Vitagraph Studios in New York. Warner Brothers' sound on disc process, called Vitaphone, was first utilised on the 1926 feature Don Juan for music and sound effects only--there was no dialogue. Don Juan bombed at the box office.

Despite the failure of Don Juan, Hollywood knew that the move to sound was inevitable. In February 1927, five studios (First National, MGM, Paramount, Producers Distributing Corporation, and Universal) decided to settle upon one provider for the conversion to sound. They settled on a Western Electric subsidiary organised in late 1926, Electrical Research Products Inc (ERPI). In the meantime, Fox and Warner Brothers continued to move forward with Movietone and Vitaphone respectively. Fox primarily concentrated on newsreels (the famous Fox Movietone News), while Warner Brothers developed feature films. In fact, Warner Brothers' next feature film would be the first to include synchronised dialogue. Based on a Broadway play and released in October 1927, The Jazz Singer proved to be a sensation. It also convinced Hollywood to make the move towards sound, although they would be slow in doing so.

One thing to result from the success of The Jazz Singer was that First National, MGM, Paramount, Universal, and United Artists (Producers Distributing Corporation having dropped out) finally signed the agreement with ERPI for sound conversion. ERPI then set about equipping all theatres with Vitaphone systems and the majority of them with the Movietone system as well. For several months after the release of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers would be the only studio to release talkies. This changed when Film Booking Offices of America (FBO, which would become RKO only a few months later) released The Perfect Crime in 1928, using RCA's Photophone system. Over time the other studios would follow, with Columbia Pictures being the last major studio to release its first talkie, Lone Wolf's Daughter, in February 1929.

By 1930 the Vitaphone sound on disc system would be a thing of the past, as both Warner Brothers and First National changed over to a more advantageous sound on film system. The term Vitaphone would survive only as the name of Warner Brother's short subjects division, the Vitaphone Corporation. Regardless, the system had provided Hollywood with its first feature talkie and in doing so sparked the move to sound. It also provided for further developments in music video.

You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet!

The advent of sound made short musical films a possibility, and Hollywood would capitalise on the fact. Even as the Fleischer Brothers were making their Song Car-Tunes using De Forest's Phonofilm process and before the release of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers would release Vitaphone shorts featuring both singers and bands. From 1930 to 1931 Warner Brothers made a series of shorts entitled Spooney Melodies, intended to showcase popular songs of the time. The Spooney Melodies were a failure, and only five were ever made.

Other studios would also make musical short subjects. At MGM, then later Vitaphone and Paramount, bandleader Phil Spitalny made a whole series of musical shorts from 1929 to 1939. MGM would also make musical shorts featuring cameos by their biggest stars, including Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, as well as shorts which featured a single band. Paramount utilised both its movie stars and its music stars in its shorts, with such names as Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Helen Kane, Artie Shaw, and so on.

One remarkable short that was not made by Vitaphone was also the only film appearance of singer Bessie Smith. In 1929 Bessie Smith, accompanied by the Hall Johnson Choir, members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section, appeared in a filmed performance of "St. Louis Blues." It proved successful, showing in theatres until 1932. It also proved that there was an audience for musical film.

In 1929 the Fleischer Brothers would follow up their successful Song Car-Tunes series with Screen Songs. Actually no different in format than the old Song Car-Tunes (even including the famous bouncing ball), Screen Songs proved so successful that the series lasted from 1929 to 1938, and was later revived by Famous Studios in 1945. The Fleischers were not the only animators who blended animation and music. In 1929 Walt Disney began his Silly Symphonies series, whose sole purpose was to combine music and animation. The Silly Symphonies proved so successful that they lasted until 1939 for a total of 75 shorts. Leon Schlesinger, whose cartoons were distributed by Warner Brothers, would follow suit with his own Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Looney Tunes was the older of the two series, conceived in 1930 as a means of showcasing music in Warner Brothers' music library. Looney Tunes was successful enough that Leon Schlesinger pitched another series to Warner Brothers, Merrie Melodies, which would feature music from Warner Brothers movie soundtracks. Of course, eventually the original concept for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies would be cast aside, to become the classic Warner Brothers cartoons we know and love today.

While various musical shorts were being made in the late Twenties and early Thirties, Hollywood also started making musical feature films. In fact, The Jazz Singer was not only the first movie with synchronised dialogue, but songs as well, making it the first movie musical. It was in 1929 that Broadway Melody became a smash hit, paving the way for all musicals to come. The first all talking musical, On with the Show was not long in following. This started a deluge of movie musicals which would last until late 1930. Unfortunately, Hollywood oversaturated the market with musicals to the point that musicals soon became passée. All of this would change in 1933 with the classics 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Both benefited from the choreography of the legendary Busby Berkley and featured songs that would become standards. The success of these musicals insured that the genre would fill movie screens for nearly forty years to come.

As feature films complete with dialogue, movie musicals cannot be considered music videos, although they would certainly have an impact on the medium. With bigger budgets than live action musical shorts, feature films could include much more sophisticated musical numbers and imagery. Viewed today, such sequences as "By A Waterfall" from Footlight Parade (1933) and the "Alter Ego" sequence from Cover Girl (1944) could easily pass as music videos. To a large degree the music video directors from the Sixties onwards owe a good deal to choreographers such as Busby Berkeley and Gene Kelly, as well as directors as Vincente Minnelli, Mark Sandrich, and, once again, Gene Kelly.

While the animated cartoons and some of the musical numbers in the feature length musicals of the time were predicated upon specific concepts or storylines, it must be pointed out that very few of the musical shorts made in the late Twenties and the Thirties would be recognised as conceptual music videos as we known them today. More often than not they were simply films of performances of songs or pieces of music. It would not be until the Forties that short, conceptual musical films would be made in any sort of quantity, and then it would take a very special jukebox to provide the impetus for such...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Drake Levin, Lead Guitarist of Paul Revere & the Raiders, Passes On

Drake Leven, best known as the lead guitarist of Paul Revere and the Raiders in their peak, passed on July 4 at the age of 62 after a long fight with cancer.

Drake Levin was born Drake Maxwell Levinshefski on August 17, 1946 in Chicago. His family eventually moved to Idaho. It was there that he met Phil "Fang" Volk. The two became interested in music after Volk received a guitar from his parents at Christmas in 1959. The two would form their own band, The Surfers. It was in 1963 that Paul Revere invited The Surfers to open for Paul Revere and the Raiders in a show outside Boise, Idaho. Revere was so impressed with The Surfers that when his lead guitarist, Dick Walker, left the band, he invited Drake Levin to join The Raiders. After bassist Ross Allemang left Paul Revere and the Raiders, he invited Volk to join as well.

Paul Revere and the Raiders left Idaho for Portland, Oregon not long after Levin joined. The group recorded "Louie, Louie" a week before The Kingsmen did. Unfortunately for The Raiders, their version only peaked at #103 on the Billboard chart, while The Kingsmen's version went all the way to #2. In the end Paul Revere and the Raiders would have the last laugh. While The Kingsmen would have a few more, minor hits, Paul Revere and the Raiders would become one of the most popular bands of the mid-Sixties. Their producer Terry Melcher made the decision for Paul Revere and the Raiders to emulate such British Invasion bands as The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks, although with a bit of American R&B thrown in for good measure.

Centred around the capable guitar work of Drake Levin, Paul Revere and the Raiders began producing a string of hits starting with "Just Like Me" in 1965. One of the earliest examples of American power pop, "Just Like Me" is historic in being one of the first records to feature a double tracked guitar solo (courtesy of Levin). "Just Like Me" went all the way to #11 on the Billboard chart, followed by such hits as "Kicks (#4 on the Billboard charts)," "Hungry (#6 on the Billboard charts)," "Good Thing (#4 on the Billboard charts), and others. Unfortunately, in 1966 Drake Levin would be called up for the draught. To avoid going into the United States Army, Levin joined the National Guard. This meant that Levin could still record with Paul Revere and the Raiders, although he could not tour with them. Filling in for Levin on lead guitar when he was not available was Jim "Harpo" Valley.

It was in 1967 that Drake Levin, Volk, and drummer Mike "Smitty" Smith left Paul Revere and the Raiders to form a trio called The Brotherhood. Signed to RCA Victor, the group released three albums. Unfortunately, The Brotherhood would see very little success. As a respected guitarist Drake Levin would go onto play with such names as Lee Michaels, Emitt Rhodes, and Ananda Shankar. Following his move to the San Francisco area, Drake Levin became a noted blues player and even formed his own blues bands, such as Billy Dunn and Bluesway. In 1997 he reunited for one last time in a stage performance with Paul Revere and the Raiders.

In the Sixties Paul Revere and the Raiders sometimes received little respect. The Revolutionary War garb in which they dressed and the comedic content of their shows made it difficult for many to take them seriously. What many missed in the Sixties was just how revolutionary Paul Revere and the Raiders were. The band played an amped up variation on the music produced by the British Invasion band that was essentially the first, successful American example of power pop. Paul Revere and the Raiders would have a lasting impact on the rock subgenres of power pop, punk, and New Wave, with everyone from The Sex Pistols to Sammy Hagar covering their songs.

Drake Levin's guitar was among the primary reasons for the success of Paul Revere and the Raiders in the Sixties. His virtuosity on the guitar was matched by only a few guitarists in the United States in the mid-Sixites. As a result it was Drake Levin who would be among the primary American influences on the genre of power pop.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Actor Harve Presnell and Old Time Radio Announcer Ken Roberts Pass On

Harve Presnell

Actor Harve Presnell, who played Mr. Parker on the series The Pretender and appeared in films ranging from The Unsinkable Molly Brown to Fargo, passed on June 30 at the age of 75. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Presnell was born George Harvey Presnell on September 14, 1933. He was drawn to singing and acting while still young. In fact, his stage debut was at age 16, singing in an opera. He attended the University of Southern California for a time, then left school to train in Europe. He sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale on several albums. He would go on to sing with the San Francisco Opera in their 1957 production of The Carmelites. He also appeared on the 1960 Columbia recording of Carmina Burana. Concurrent with his career in opera, Harve Presnell also appeared on television in episodes of General Electric Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It was while he was performing Carmina Burana in Berlin that Meredith Wilson heard him. Wilson, fresh from success with The Music Man, then wrote the part of Johnny "Leadville" Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown specifically for him. Presnell made his Broadway debut in The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1960. He would also play the party of Leadville Brown in the movie version of The Unsinkable Mollie Brown, which was released in 1964. In the Sixties Presnell appeared in the movies The Glory Guys, When the Boys Meet the Girls, and Paint Your Wagon.

For the most part during the Seventies and Eighties Presnell concentrated on the stage. Over the years he appeared in productions of Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel, and Scarlett, a musical version of Gone With the Wind. In 1980 Presnell returned to Broadway, taking over the role of Daddy Warbucks in Annie.

Harve Presnell made an impressive return to film in the Nineties, with two roles in movies released in 1996. He played Dr. Isaac Howard, the father of legendary pulp writer Robert E. Howard, in The Whole Wide World. He also played Wade Gustafson in Fargo, the imposing father of Jean Lundegaard and hence the father in law of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). Presnell would go onto appear in such films as Larger than Life, The Chamber, Saving Private Ryan, Face/Off,Patch Adams, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Flags of Our Fathers.

Presnell would also have a career in television. He was a regular as Mr. Parker on The Pretender for the entirety of its run (1996-2000) and guested on such shows as The Outer Limits, Dawson's Creek, Frasier, Monk, and ER.

Harve Presnell was an extremely talented man. As a singer he was possessed of a powerful baritone that was put to impressive use in both The Unsinkable Mollie Brown and Paint Your Wagon. As an actor he was very versatile. He could play the gentle, kindly Dr. Howard in The Whole Wide World and in the same year play the imposing, bullying Wade Gustafson in Fargo. While many might not recognise his name, I am sure they remember his face and his powerful voice.

Ken Roberts

Ken Roberts, whose golden voice announced shows from the era of Old Time Radio to that of television soap operas, passed on June 19 at the age of 99.

Ken Roberts was born on February 22, 1910 in Manhattan as Saul Trochman. He grew up in the Bronx. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He attended law school and even worked in Fiorello H. La Guardia's law office as an intern. He entered radio in the late Twenties, working at station WPCH in New Jersey. In 1930 he started work at WLTH in Brooklyn. It was not long after he entered the radio business that he changed his name so it would not "sound so Jewish."

It was in 1930 that he received a job at the Columbia Broadcasting System's New York City Station, WABC. He beat out 40 other applicants to get the job. He was with WABC for twenty years. It was there that he became one of the most familiar voices in radio. Among the many shows he announced were The Fred Allen Show, The Shadow, Ellery Queen, Easy Aces, Baby Snooks, You Are There, and This is Nora Drake. Presnell also emceed game shows, such as Quick as a Flash and It Pays to be Ignorant. Like nearly all announcers in the days of Old Time Radio, Presnell narrated commercials, developing the uncanny ability to be friendly and even jovial no matter what the product was.

With the advent of television Ken Roberts moved to the new medium, where he may be best known for announcing soap operas. He was the long time announcer on such soaps as Love of Life and The Secret Storm. He was also the original announcer for Candid Camera and on the game show Dollar a Second, on which he first narrated adverts for Mogen David wine. He parodied his own delivery as a soap opera announcer on The Electric Company in the recurring sketch "Love of a Chair."

Despite dashing good looks and an incredible voice, Ken Roberts had only one major acting role to his credit, as dimwitted athlete Mel Kahn in the Broadway play Hitch Your Wagon in 1937. As perhaps one of the most identifiable voices in radio, Woody Allen utilised Ken Roberts as the announcer in his movie Radio Days.

Ken Roberts was one of the greatest radio announcers of all time, perhaps the greatest of all time. Although he grew up in the Bronx, Roberts' voice could not be identified as coming from any particular part of the United States, while remaining identifiably American. Because of this, Ken Roberts as an announcer was pleasing to everyone's ears. His voice also possessed a warm, friendly tone that was quite versatile, ranging from the melodrama necessary for radio shows such as The Shadow and the television soap operas to a more jovial tone used for game shows and commercials. Announcing on literally thousands of hours of radio and television over the years, Roberts became an integral part of the American fabric from the Thirties into the Seventies.