Saturday, April 16, 2011

Arthur Marx R.I.P.

Author and comedy writer Arthur Marx passed on 14 April 2011 at the age of 89.

Arthur Marx was born on 21 July 1921, the son of famed comic actor Groucho Marx and his wife Ruth Johnson. Her early years were often spent on the road with his father and his uncles, the famed Marx Brothers. Once the Marx Brothers began making movies, Groucho and his family would settle in Los Angeles. As the son of one of the most comedians of all time, Mr. Marx grew up among celebrities, from actors to directors.

Oddly enough given his origins, Arthur Marx would not first find fame in the entertainment field. Instead he would become famous initially for his skill at tennis. Indeed, he achieved national ranking while he was still in high school. At age 18, while at the University of Southern California, Mr. Marx won the National Freshman Intercollegiate Tennis title at Montclair, New Jersey. During World War II he served in the Coast Guard in the Philippines.

Following World War II Arthur Marx took up writing. He worked as an advertising copywriter, as well as a gag writer for Milton Berle. His first screenplay would be for the film Winter Wonderland in 1947. Over the next several years he would write screenplays for such films as Blondie in the Dough (1947), Gypsy Holiday (1948), Reducing (1952) , and Do Someone A Favour (1954).  In 1951 his first book was published, The Ordeal of Willie Brown.

Arthur Marx would write a few more movies, including A Global Affair (1964), I'll Take Sweden  (1965), Cancel My Reservation (1972), and Groucho (1982). He would write plays for Broadway, including The Impossible Years (1965), Minnie's Boys (1970),and Groucho:  A Life in Revue (1986). He would write extensively for television, beginning with an episode of G.E. Theatre  in 1960. Over the years he would write for such series as Dennis the Menace, McHale's Navy, Petticoat Junction, The Mothers-in-Law, Love American Style, All in the Family, and Alice.

It would be for his books that Arthur Marx would perhaps be best known. In all Mr. Marx wrote twelve books, many of them biographies such as Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth (1976), Red Skelton (1979), The Nine Lives of Mickey Rooney (1988), and The Secret Life of Bob Hope (1993). He wrote several books regarding his relationship with his famous father, including Life with Groucho (1954), Son of Groucho (1972), and Arthur Marx's Groucho: A Photographic Journey (2001). While Mr. Marx's books were not always free of bias (this was perhaps particularly true of The Secret Life of Bob Hope), they were always well written and meticulously researched. The reader was guaranteed that nearly everything in a book by Arthur Marx was documented.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The 10th Anniversary of Joey Ramone's Death

It was ten years ago today that a rock 'n' roll legend died. On 15 April 2001 Joey Ramone, lead vocalist of The Ramones, passed at the age of 49. The cause was lymphoma.

Joey Ramone was born Jeffry Hyman on 9 May 1951 in Queens, New York. He grew up listening to The Beatles, The Who, the girl groups Phil Spector  had produced, and later David Bowie and The Stooges.His mother encouraged Joey's interest in music. When he was thirteen years old Jeffry Hyman began playing the drums.

It was in 1974 that Jeffry Hyman founded The Ramones with John Cummings and Douglas Colvin. The band's name came about when Douglas Colvin adopted the stage name "Dee Dee Ramone," drawing upon a stage name used by Paul McCartney in the early days of The Beatles, "Paul Ramon." Jeffry Hyman then became Joey Ramone and John Cummings then became Johnny Ramone. Naturally, the band was named "The Ramones." Thomas Erdelyi, who had played with Joey in various bands, became the group's manager. Initially Dee sang lead and played bass, while Joey played drums. Eventually Dee Dee found that playing bass and singing at the same time was difficult for him. It would be Thomas Erdelyi who would suggest that Joey become lead vocalist. Thomas Erdelyi then took over drums and became "Tommy Ramone."

It was on 16 August 1974 that The Ramones would play at the famous club CGGB in New York City for the first time. The band soon became regulars at the club and they also started to receive a good deal of recognition. This was perhaps for good reason, as The Ramones were a sharp contrast to the rock music fashionable at the time. Unlike many of the progressive rock bands of the time, The Ramones played songs that were very short, usually only two minutes or less. Unlike the glam rock artists of the time, they eschewed sequins and spandex for leather jackets and blue jeans. In fact, The Ramones were regarded as being at the forefront of a new movement in rock called "punk."

By late 1975 The Ramones would be signed to Sire Records. Their first album, Ramones, was released in Feburary 1976. The album's longest song was "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement," which was barely over two and a half minutes. The album would not prove to be a smash hit by any stretch of the imagination. It only reached 111 on the Billboard albums chart. Neither of the singles, "Blitzkrieg Bop" nor "Beat on the Brat," even charted. The Ramones' next , Leave Home would prove to be even less successful, but their third album, Rocket to Russia, would surpass the first two albums. In fact, Rocket to Russia featured "Sheena Was a Punk Rocker," the first Ramones single to enter the Billboard Hot 100. While commercial success escaped The Ramones, however, they proved to be one of the most influential bands of the time, particularly among punk rockers.

Joey Ramone grew up listening to The Beatles, The Who, and Phil Spector's girl groups. Indeed, he shared his birthday with his idol, Pete Townshend, leader of The Who. Joey took that love of The Beatles, The Who, Phil Spector's various girl groups, and other early rock legends and brought it to the Ramones. It was largely because of Joey's love of early rock, as well as the other members of The Ramones, that they played short, often catchy songs. Indeed, the influence of Phil Spector can even be seen in their first album, on which they offer a Wall of Sound with only four instruments.

In fact, in my humble opinion, Joey may have been the best song writer of The Ramones. At the very least, he composed most of my favourite songs by The Ramones: "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "I Wanna Be Sedated," and "The KKK Took My Baby Away." Joey had a gift for writing basic, catchy songs that few others possess. And his style was not limited to garage rock. "The KKK Took My Baby Away" has a harmony that is close to power pop (here I must also point out that its riff resembles that of Cheap Trick's "'E's a Whore").

While Joey was not a great vocalist as far as his range is concerned, he was certainly a distinctive one. His vocals echoed that of early rockabilly, full of hiccups, snarls, and cracking. At the same time, however, he could be melodic. A perfect example of this is their cover of "The Shape of Things to Come" from the album Acid Eaters, perhaps the closest the group ever came to pure power pop.

Here I must note that I respected Joey for more than his talent as a rock performer and a songwriter. Joey was also a man of conviction. While The Ramones as a band eschewed politics, Joey always spoke his mind. Indeed, the one instance in which The Ramones performed an openly political song would be one written by Joey. "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" criticised Ronald Reagan for his visit to the former Nazi concentration camp. He would also join other rock artists in supporting Steven Van Zandt's activist group, United Against Apartheid, in boycotting the South African resort Sun City. Like many rock musicians, Joey also stood against the Parents Music Resource Centre in its efforts to censor rock music. While I cannot say I always agreed with Joey, I must say I admired the fact that he stood by his convictions

I must confess I did not cry for days on end when Joey Ramone died, as I did when John Lennon, George Harrsion, John Entwistle,and Doug Fieger died, but I did mourn him a good deal. The Ramones were a part of my youth, and I could not help but feel sad at his passing. My own thought then was that The Ramones were over. I thought that even more so when Dee Dee Ramone passed several years later. For me Joey and Dee Dee were the heart of The Ramones. They were the band's best composers and the ones who brought the most to the band's plate. As such they became two of the most influential rock performers of all time. Today I told my brother it does not seem like it has been ten years since Joey Ramone died. Perhaps it is because that, through his music, he is still with us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Happy Together"

I am sure most of us have had those times when we get a specific song stuck in our head and it simply will not go away unless one listens to the song over and over again or yet another song gets stuck in our heads. This has been my situation this week. Ever since Sunday the song "Happy Together," originally performed by The Turtles, has been stuck in my head. It is not just one version either, but Filter's version as well as the original.

"Happy Together" was written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon. The two of them had founded the band called "The Magicians" in 1965. Unfortunately, the band's popularity would never extend beyond the New England/New York area, although they did release the single "Invitation to Cry" in late 1965. It would seem that if Messrs. Bonner and Gordon were to have any success, it would have to be as songwriters rather than as rock performers. Unfortunately, it seemed that they initially met with little success there as well. "Happy Together," now a pop rock standard, was rejected a dozen times before The Turtles accepted the song.

Like The Magicians, The Turtles were founded in 1965. Unlike The Magicians, The Turtles would prove to be one of the more successful American rock bands of the late Sixties. The band evolved from The Crossfires from the Planet Mars, a surf rock band founded by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman in Westchester, California. Signed to White Whale Records, The Crossfires from Mars renamed themselves The Tyrtles, which soon became the more conventionally spelled "The Turtles." The band would have success fairly swiftly, achieving a hit with a cover of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" in the late summer of 1965. The song went to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.

By the time "Happy Together" was released in 1967, The Turtles had already had 3 top forty hits. As to "Happy Together," the song would prove to be the band's most popular. The group not only performed the song on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, and American Bandstand, but also shot a promotional film for the song. In the end "Happy Together" would prove to incredibly successful It knocked The Beatles' "Penny Lane" out of the #1 spot and remained there for three weeks.

I rather suspect that much of the reason for the song's success is that it is a rather bouncy song that sounds rather, well, happy. Of course, you will notice I said "sounds happy." Quite simply, "Happy Together" is not the simple song about love and togetherness people think it is. Instead "Happy Together" is a song in which an obviously obsessed suitor is trying to persuade the object of his affection that they are meant to be together. The fact that he has not yet won the girl of his dreams is demonstrated by the opening words, "Imagine me and you, I do." The fact that he is a bit obsessive is shown by the song's second line, "I think about you day night, it's only right..." "Happy Together" is not a song about togetherness so much as it is a song about an individual wanting to be together with someone. If it sounds happy, it is only because the song's narrator seems certain he cannot fail.

Regardless, "Happy Together" was not only the biggest hit The Turtles ever had, it also became a pop rock standard. In 1999 BMI estimated it was the forty fourth most performed song of the 20th Century, putting it the same league as The Beatles' "Michelle (#42)" and The Drifters' "On Broadway (#45)." There have been several cover versions, including versions by Simple Plan, Weezer, Johnny Panic, The Leningrad Cowboys, The Rosewood Thieves, The Dollyrots, Filter, and many others. Both the original version or one of the many covers have been used in numerous TV shows and movies, from Making Mr. Right to the 2009 remake of The Stepfather, from The Wonder Years to The Simpsons. It also also been used in innumerable adverts. For a song which was originally rejected a dozen times, it proved to be one of the biggest hits of the Sixties.

Now, for your enjoyment, here are a few clips of various versions of the song, starting with the promo film for original "Happy Together" by The Turtles.

Next up is The Dollyrots' cover version. While I have always liked The Dollyrots, I do not entirely like their cover of "Happy Together." I think they may have needed a different arrangement.

Next up is the version by English punk band Johnny Panic. Surprisingly it is more faithful to the original than most versions, although it is harder.

Finally, here is Filter's version from the remake of The Stepfather. This is my favourite version besides the original. While the arrangement is radically different, it does bring out the darker theme of obsession present in the original.