Dumbing Down The Cosmos

February 26, 2011

I happened across some television program on aliens the other night that was focused on theorists proffering the idea that human evolution has been influenced by extraterrestrial beings.

One fellow rattled off the Nazca Lines, the Pyramids of Giza and the Moai statues of Easter Island as evidence.

There was speculation that aliens might have altered the DNA of humans, resulting in some six billion or so lab rats.

The theory was also offered that some of their experientation with the various species on the planet explains the strange creatures depicted in ancient mythology – lions with wings and such.

And, these creatures might have, then, been taken by the aliens to populate other worlds.

I thought of our planet’s inhabitants as Sea Monkeys for extraterrestrials.

(it would be far less disappointing than brine shrimp)

Then, I considered Earth as a potential reality show for more advanced civilizations in the cosmos. Perhaps it competes for the attention of viewers with “reality” shows set in the other worlds the aliens have created.

Earth is probably quite popular in extraterrestrial trailer parks and a guilty pleasure for others.

(maybe it has a snappier title like So You Think You Can Evolve?)

Here are four television songs…

A-ha – The Sun Always Shines On T.V.
from Hunting High And Low

Here in the States, the Norwegian trio A-Ha has been relegated to one-hit wonder status which is unfortunate.

Sure, everyone knows Take On Me, but I’ve always been partial to that song’s follow-up, The Sun Always Shines On T.V. It hurtles along with a gloriously yearning melody and, as I recall, the video was almost as striking as the song for which they’re better known.

David Bowie – TVC 15
from The Singles Collection

TVC 15 is a jaunty little number that originally appeared on Bowie’s Station To Station set. Apparently the song was inspired by a drug-fueled hallucination by Iggy Pop that a television set had swallowed his girlfriend. Iggy wished to crawl into the television and join her.

(Burger King commercials have the same effect on me)

Pulp – TV Movie
from This Is Hardcore

I owned a trio of Pulp’s records from the mid-’90s when they reached their highest profile in their native UK. Here in the States, the group garnered little attention (which is too bad).

Jarvis Cocker always reminded me of a latter day Ray Davies. This is Hardcore was a darker, more somber affair than the band’s previous Different Class. TV Movie, lamenting a failed relationship, is somber, but it is also lovely and moving.

The Tubes – T.V. Is King
from Remote Control

My high school buddy Bosco turned me on to both The Tubes and Todd Rundgren. Though Remote Control was released several years earlier, I have no doubt it was a memorable moment for him as the album found Rundgren producing the band.

Rundgren also received writing credits on a pair of songs from Remote Control, a concept album about television, including T.V. Is King. The amusing track has Rundgren’s fingerprints all over it.

Way Out West(ern)

February 23, 2011

I have vague memories of pestering my parents to allow me to stay up and watch Gunsmoke on Monday nights.

That long-running television Western was off the air before I reached grade school. I grew up in what was probably the first wave of kids for who Westerns weren’t an essential part of childhood.

And, instead of John Wayne, I think Clint Eastwood.

(in truth, I’ve never really watched a John Wayne movie of any kind)

Eastwood’s Unforgiven, The Outlaw Josie Wales, and High Plains Drifter, though, are all essential viewing for me as are his trio of Spaghetti Westerns with Sergio Leone.

I vividly recall one of those infrequent nights as a small kid when I inexplicably escaped being sent off to bed well before the late news aired.

The news had come and gone and, yet, there I was, sprawled on the floor with a pillow and a blanket, basking in the glow of late-night television.

I was seven, maybe eight and I knew little of this mysterious world.

My dad was still awake, stretched out in his chair, as up popped the logo for The CBS Late Movie on the television screen in all of its mid-’70s glory and there was For A Few Dollars More.

There we were, me and the old man, watching as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef tracked the fugitive El Indio with steely-eyed resolve.

There was a crazy prospector, a hunchback, a little person, some odd sound effects, an unending hail of bullets, and Ennio Morricone’s musical brilliance. There were moments and scenes that were not unlike the cartoons I watched.

(except for the bullets and music)

The Old West in this flick bore little resemblence to the one which I’d seen on Sunday mornings when the only options on our handful of television stations was religious programming or an old Western in black and white.

Black and white?! I might as well have read a book.

This had grit and I could all but feel the heat shimmering from the desert plains. When Clint squinted into the glare of the sun on the horizon, so did I.

And sometime before Clint loaded up the pile of bodies into a cart to collect his bounties and Lee Van Cleef rode off alone, my dad explained to me the origin of the term Spaghetti Western.

Westerns named after my favorite meal…

The late-night world held wonders and the music of Ennio Morricone was the soundtrack.

The only Ennio Morricone I own are the soundtracks to Cinema Paradiso and The Mission – both of which are stellar – and a few other odd tracks.

So, here are a pair of songs from Ennio Morricone’s classic soundtrack to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and a pair from the late ’80s soundtrack to the obscure, twisted spaghetti Western flick Straight To Hell

Ennio Morricone – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly soundtrack

Ennio Morricone – The Ecstasy Of Gold
from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly soundtrack

Evocative and compelling, it’s impossible to think of The Man With No Name and not hear the music of Ennio Morricone (and vice versa). It was a perfect marriage.

If I could – and I suppose there’s no reason I couldn’t except for obvious financial constraints – I’d hire Morricone to write theme music for me which I would then listen to on my iPod all day as I went about my tasks.

That’s what I’d do.

Pray For Rain – The Killers
from Straight To Hell soundtrack

The Pogues – Rabinga
from Straight To Hell soundtrack

Two years ago, I wrote about Straight To Hell, an odd curio of a movie starring Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer, and The Pogues as well as a pre-fame Courtney Love, Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones.

The tagline for the movie – which was from the same director/writer behind the ’80s cult flick Repo Man – was “a story of blood, money, guns, coffee, and sexual tension.”

The movie was underwhelming, but there was some cool, Morricone-inspired music on the soundtrack.

Harpsichord Everywhere

February 19, 2011

Often the dots of the universe connect in a surprisingly delightful and unusual manner.

Like sleep-addled groundhogs, Paloma and I poked our heads out last weekend, peered about, and realized that the tundra had thawed, leaving us with peerless weather and warmth.

We headed out.

Paloma manned the Sirius satellite radio that she had gotten me for Christmas, delighting in the array of options and searching for The Smiths.

Momentarily, she idled on the ’70s station long enough for the screen of the radio to display Maureen McGovern – The Morning After (’72) and the opening notes of the hit from the The Poseidon Adventure to play.

“I like that song,” I told her. “It has harpsichord in it.”

She quickly moved on, unswayed by the lure of the harpischord.

I vaguely remember The Morning After from the time, though I do remember the slew of ’70s disaster flicks – Airport ’75, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno – that featured all-star casts and would air as The ABC Sunday Night Movie.

A few days later, I happened to read Lawrence Welk, Pop Star over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. I read with interest as Paloma and I will often watch when we come across an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show.

JB noted that the song Calcutta, Welk’s Number One hit from 1961, features harpsichord.


I had to do a bit of sleuthing to find more songs with harpsichord.

There were a number that I immediately recognized, songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Mamas & Papas’ Monday Monday, Yardbirds’ For Your Love, Paul Muriat’s Love Is Blue, The Beatles’ Piggies, and Partridge Family’s I Think I Love You.

I might be able to bang out a few chords on guitar, but I’m not a musician. I don’t think that I ever really pondered the harpsichord I was hearing in those songs.

I’m not even sure that I knew that what I was hearing was harpsichord.

However, to paraphrase Marcia Brady, I don’t know how to build a clock, but I know how to tell time and, though I might know little about the harpsichord, I can still enjoy what it brings to a song.

Here are four songs with harpsichord…

Asia – Ride Easy
from Anthologia: The 20th Anniversary/Geffen Years Collection (1982-1990)

I was completely smitten with Asia’s self-titled debut in ’82 and – somewhere – I still have a poster of the album cover. That poster inspired me to suggest the Asia dragon as potential artwork when Paloma was searching for something to cover a tattoo.

(she didn’t find the idea as grand as I did, but, then again, she wasn’t a fourteen-year old boy in 1982)

Yet, grand is an appropriate description of the quartet’s debut album and it shouldn’t be surprising that a band whose drummer had a gong would find room for harpsichord, too.

Ride Easy was the b-side to Asia’s first hit, Heat Of The Moment, and not included on their debut album much to my dismay at the time as I’d only get to hear it when I’d punch it up on a jukebox.

Maureen McGovern – The Morning After
from Have A Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box

I seem to hear The Morning After at least once a week while listening to Sirius’ ’70s station on the morning commute to work and that’s fine by me.

There’s something about the song that I dig. Maybe it’s the sheer melodrama of it all, but, if you’re going to have a theme song about a luxury liner capsized by a massive tidal wave – and Ernest Borgnine is in the cast – I suppose that it’s no time to be timid.

Rolling Stones – Play With Fire
from Big Hits: High Tide And Green Grass

I fully admit that The Stones have been phoning it in for so long now that it has affected my view of them. And that makes it all the more astounding when something pre-Goats Head Soup pops up on the iPod.

Play With Fire is truly menacing and menace is a vibe which The Stones were once as capable of capturing as well as any band ever has.

Jellyfish – The King Is Half-Undressed
from Bellybutton

I discovered Jellyfish when the record store where I worked received a promo copy of the band’s debut, Bellybutton, in 1990. The psychedelic album cover was eye-catching and the music earned the group from San Francisco comparisons to greats like Queen, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, XTC, and Cheap Trick.

Despite plenty of swooning by critics, Jellyfish was unable to find mainstream success and would split up after just one more album, 1993’s Spilt Milk, but the group has continued to loom large in the hearts of power pop devotees for the past two decades.

Be forewarned, I listened to The King Is Half-Undressed the other morning as I hadn’t heard it for awhile. That was two days ago and I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head.