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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hotlegs - "Thinks: School Stinks"

10cc when they were 1 Million Years B.C.

Hotlegs - Thinks: School Stinks (Philips/Capitol, 1971)
Hotlegs - You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think of It
(Philips, 1976)

Eric Stewart / guitar, bass, vocals, synthesizer (Moog), arranger, producer
Lol Creme / guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals, arranger, producer
Kevin Godley / drums, percussion, vocals, arranger, producer
- Graham Gouldman / bass ("Today")
- Baz Barker / flute, violin
- Mike Bell / saxophone
- Ian Brooks / trumpet
- Rod Morton / tambourine
- Mike Timoney / organ
- Cheadle Hulme High School Choir / Vocals on "Suite F.A."
- Tony Harrison / String arrangement ("Today")

10cc fanatic Amy Linthicum bought vinyl copies of these two LPs online and then had them transfered to CD (thanks to Gary Gebler at Trax on Wax) for our digital listening convenience. All I can say is, "Hooray!" for Thinks: School Stinks is three-quarters 10cc (7.5cc?) at their prog-rock peak, two years before their titular 10cc debut album with Graham Gouldman. It is, in the words of one fan-critic, "the album many of us wished 10CC would make. It is largely devoid of the too clever for their own good lyrics and structures, the songs being simple, well crafted pop rock numbers."

I emphasize that last sentence because I think it points to the reason why the supremely over-talented band of musical brothers known as 10cc have been so criminally neglected by pop music historians. Could it be because they were too clever by far for their own good? Too multi-faceted (each member could write, sing, play, arrange, produce) to fit into rock 'n' roll's preferred pigeon-hole classification system of genres (pop, rock, soul, prog, AOR) and roles (i.e., lead singer, lead guitarist, drummer, etc.)

Amy's ears quite rightly heard a heavy Beatles vibe on Thinks School Stinks, especially the later Beatles albums released around this time period - specifically The White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road. And, speaking of "Neanderthal Man," she astutely pointed out, "You know it's a '70s record when you hear a pop song with flute in it!" My ears found this album to be a synthesis of everything 1970s, with studio production values that rate Thinks School Stinks as a stereo demonstration record - in other words, it sounds great and uses virtually every production trick in the book, from cross-fades, cross-channel zooms (especially effective on Eric Stewart's guitar solos!) to layered overdubs, echo, strings, you name it.

OK, back to the plot...Thinks School Stinks is the album Mssrs. Kevin Godley, Lol Creme and Eric Stewart recorded as Hotlegs (Stewart coined the name in homage to the outstanding attributes of their sexy hotpants-clad Strawberry Studios secretary) to back up their insanely unlikely and massively popular (#2 UK pop charts, #22 US pop charts) reductio-ad-absurdum 1970 hit "Neanderthal Man," which sold two million copies worldwide.

Primal Stomp: "Neanderthal Man"

"Neanderthal Man" was as far from clever as a song could be, basically a sound check with a one-line lyric repeated for the duration of the song. It was so dumb, in fact, that it was the kind of thing that made bottom-line record company suits drool. Rock critic Dave Thompson picks up the story here:
In 1970, Kevin Godley, Lol Crème, and Eric Stewart were, alongside songwriter Graham Gouldman, the house band at the Strawberry Studios setup in Stockport, England. Gouldman was spending much of his time in New York, working as a contract songwriter for the Kasenatz/Katz bubblegum team - his partners remained at home, equipping the studio and testing the new equipment. It was during one of these tests, playing around with a drum kit and a new four-track recorder, that Philips label rep Dick Leahy happened by, heard what they were doing, and pronounced it an instant hit single.

"It" was a percussive experiment which evolved around a chant of "I'm a Neanderthal man/you're a Neanderthal girl/let's make Neanderthal love" and Leahy's instincts were correct. Restructured and released (under the name Hotlegs) in the summer of 1970, "Neanderthal Man" reached number 22 in the U.S., number two in Britain, number one in Italy, and ultimately sold over two million worldwide. The record was enormous. The Idle Race, heading towards the end of their brief but glorious career, wrested one final hit when they covered the song for German and Argentine consumption. Bandleader James Last included a version on his latest album; even Elton John, eking out a pre-fame career as a jobbing sessioneer, recorded his own distinctive version for a budget-priced collection of sound-alike hits.

Watch the "Neanderthal Man" music video.

"We thought we had it made," Godley thought at the time. "We were on our way baby!...We hit an unexpected nerve with 'Neanderthal Man.' It was one of those lucky accidents that turn into something both interesting and successful, without knowing how or why. When you go back and try to recreate the same circumstances it just doesn't work."

In his excellent glam rock history Children of the Revolution, Dave Thompson describes the events leading up to this unlikeliest of hits. In early 1970, Kevin, Lol and Eric were playing around with all the gear at their Strawberry Studios in Stockport, "strumming, wailing, and banging anything in sight" to test the new equipment coming into the studio. As Kevin Godley recalled to Thompson: "The first musical noises that had any cohesion...started life as an unorthodox drum test featuring fullkit overdubbed onto all four tracks, with Lol singing this spooky, retarded nursery rhyme that got mixed in via the bass drum mike. Like all the early work, it was driven by applied ignorance and adrenalin but we knew we had something. Unfortunately the track got erased but we liked the vibe so much we started again adding recorders, tone generator, anvil, backwards echo until it sounded like nothing else on earth."

Eric Stewart added: "Dick Leahy, from Philips, came in and said 'What the hell's that you're playing?' I said, 'It's a studio experiment; a percussive experiment.' He says, 'It sounds like a hit record to me - can we release it?' And we said, 'Yeah, okay. What should we call it?' 'Neanderthal Man.' And what should we call ourselves? Hotlegs.'We had a girl at the studio, Kathy Gill, who had very, very nice legs and she used to wear these incredible hotpants. Green, leather hotpants. So we called the group, ah, Hotlegs."

The flip side of "Neanderthal Man" was a song called "You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think of It," which later became the title of a 1976 Hotlegs compilation LP that simply rearranged the order of the songs on Thinks: School Stinks and added four more songs. The second half of the song "You Didn't Like It" would eventually evolve into the 10cc song "Fresh Air for My Mama."

"You Didn't Like It" - cover by Godley and Creme

Besides "You Didn't Like It," the "new" additional songs on You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think of It included "Today" (a reworking of a Godley-Creme song from their days as Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon), and both sides of the 1971 single "Lady Sadie" b/w "The Loser."

In between, Philips repackaged Thinks School Stinks as Songs (issued only in Britain, Germany, and Venezuela), omitting "Neanderthal Man" in favor of "The Loser" and "Today." According to rock critic Dave Thompson, Songs was Hotlegs attempt to nullify the "novelty hit" tag they were burdened with after "Neanderthal Man"'s surprising success:
Hotlegs broke through with a novelty hit, and they never lived it down. "Neanderthal Man" might have proven one of the most distinctive hits of 1970, but that's all it was -- distinctive, a thumping, crashing, grunting novelty its makers would rather have forgotten about completely. Certainly that was how it felt when they delivered their debut album, Thinks: School Stinks, and the suspicion grew even more intense six months later. Booked to open for the Moody Blues on a six-date U.K. tour, Hotlegs knew they could play up to the hit, and be laughed out of sight. Or they could play to their strengths, and maybe win the hearts of a few members of the headliners' audience. They chose the latter course and their U.K. record label, having long since abandoned any hope of any further hits in the "Neanderthal" vein, agreed to give it a go. Hence Songs, essentially a note-for-note reissue of Thinks: School Stinks, with one crucial difference -- no hit single. Both "Neanderthal Man" and the similarly jokey "Desperate Dan" were dumped, in favor of "Today" and the lovely "The Loser," and with the album's sleeve and title similarly revised, Hotlegs set out to try and gain some credibility. It should have worked. Even such minor surgery completely redesigns the album, planting it firmly on the edge of the soft rock boom, with the emphasis on the word "edge" -- even this early on, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were more or less incapable of writing a straightforward song, while Eric Stewart's guitar playing is seldom short of rock-god revelatory. But "Neanderthal Man" remained a hard act to follow, and Hotlegs were never up to the challenge. By the time they transformed into 10cc, a little over a year later, both band and its album were long, long forgotten.

Stunned by their success, Hotlegs set to work out the album of songs that they hoped would be the antithesis (or antidote) to "Neanderthal Man," Thinks: School Stinks. Their creativity at a peak, they were clearly inspired to try out all the gizmos the studio had to offer on this long player - and use them they did; in fact, Kevin Godley believes that he and Lol Creme built their first Gizmo guitar prototype during this period (though I don't hear it anywhere on this album). And they took their time, not completing Thinks: School Stinks until March 1971, a full nine months after the July 1970 release of "Neanderthal Man."

Thinks: School Stinks (March 1971)

Songs / Tracks Listing
1. Neanderthal Man (4:19)
2. How Many Times (3:57)
3. Desperate Dan (2:12)
4. Take Me Back (5:01)
5. Um Wah, Um Woh (5:30)
6. Suite F.A.: On My Way/Indecision/The Return (12:53)
7. Fly Away (2:43)
8. Run Baby Run (2:50)
9. All God's Children (4:55)

Total Time 44:20

The first thing that strikes ones eyes is the album cover, designed by Godley and Creme, which depicts a scratched wooden school desk. Alice Cooper must have liked it too, because two years later a similar cover adorned his School's Out LP.

Alice Cooper's "School's Out" LP (1972)

With the exception of the infectious tribal-chant rocker "Um Wah Um Woh," little on this album bears any semblance to the hit "Neanderthal Man" - and the semblance is mainly to do with both songs' irresistable catchiness! (The simplicity of both songs' rote-repetitive lyrical chants makes me think of boozy soccer fans singing away in the terraces; in fact, this may help explain the success of not only "Neanderthal Man," but of other UK terrace-singalong bands like Slade and Oasis - bands that make music easy to interact with in a large crowd). Rather, in the words of Dave Thompson, "Hotlegs revealed themselves to be a very melodic, very gentle musical concern, a far cry from the proto-industrial crashing of 'Neanderthal Man.'" Ah yes, from the primordial ooze of "Neanderthal" arose the evolved, melodic concerns of pre-10cc...

In the interim between hit single and long-awaited support album, Hotlegs' U.S. label Capitol became so antsy for a follow-up single that they released a second, slower (5-minute) version of "There Ain't No Umbopo" - a song Godley-Creme-Stewart had previously released in the U.K. under the name Doctor Father (and which was probably also recorded by Hotlegs under the moniker Crazy Elephant for the Kasenetz-Katz bubblegum factory in the U.S.) - in August 1970. Kevin Godley described "Umbopo" as "one of those runt songs that hung around looking for a home for a long time. Everybody liked it, but couldn't work out where it belonged. I remember Lol coming up with this cool open guitar tuning and two hypnotic chords and us writing the song at my parents' house...forever. It was a long song, about six minutes or thereabouts and it was eventually released under the name Doctor Father."

Alas, "Umbopo" was not a hit.

Doctor Father - "Umbopo"

Though a follow-up hit to "Neanderthal Man" was not forthcoming, Hotlegs returned to to the charts anonymously at the end of 1970. With Graham Gouldman joining them at Strawberry Studios, they backed John Paul Jones (not the Led Zeppelin bass player but a comedian-turned-singer who Kevin Godley said "had the most wonderful rich voice") on his Christmas hit single "Man from Nazareth/Got to Get Together." A subsequent court order injunction by Led Zep's John Paul Jones forced the comedian to change his moniker to John Paul Joans (in the US market, JPJ was simply renamed "Jones"). The single rose as high as #25 on the UK charts.

What's in a name?: John Paul Joans

Then, under the guise of the New Wave Band (yes, "New Wave" debuted in 1970!), and with former Herman's Hermit Derek Leckenby in tow, the trio released a cover of Paul Simon's "Cecilia" backed with "Free Free Free" on the Major Minor label. Eric Stewart's "Free Free Free" was the first track he recorded at Strawberry Studios; though Harvey Lisbery is listed as the single's producer, this was an Eric Stewart production all the way.

New Wave Band: "Cecilia"

As Dave Thompson continues:
Undeterred, the trio (augmented by Gouldman) undertook a short British tour supporting the Moody Blues towards the end of 1970, but little more was heard from Hotlegs for another year. Then, in September 1971, they released a new single, "Lady Sadie," while Philips repackaged Thinks: School Stinks as Songs...Songs did no better than its predecessor, and Hotlegs was abandoned -- less than a year later, of course, the three members plus, again, Gouldman, would resurface as 10cc and, this time, enjoy considerably more success. It was at the height of this fame that the Hotlegs material resurfaced once more, as 1974's You Didn't Like It Cos You Didn't Think of It compilation brought together all the previously available Hotlegs material.

Moody Blues & Hotlegs, 1971 Tour Book

Regrettably, the Moody Blues tour did little to win over new Hotlegs fans. As Kevin Godley mused, "Audiences were expecting 'Neanderthal Man' and we were playing Thinks: School Stinks. Consequently, any momentum evaporated, the phone stopped ringing, and it was time for a rethink."

At this point, I'd like to echo the sage observations of Bob McBeath, who under his nom-de-plume "Easy Livin," rated Thinks: School Stinks - and the four extra songs on You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think of It - as follows: "The tracks are pretty much all founded in the acoustic guitars of Crème and Stewart, with occasional additional instrumentation being added as required. The songs are all written by Godley, and Crème, with Eric Stewart also receiving credit on the majority. In some ways, this is the album many of us wished 10cc would make. It is largely devoid of the too clever for their own good lyrics and structures, the songs being simple, well crafted pop rock numbers."

Kevin Godley, in a 1976 interview with George Tremlette (author of The 10cc Story - one of only two books ever written about 10cc), said the album included songs and ideas that he and Lol Creme had intended recording in 1969 with entrepreneur Giorgio Gomelsky for his Marmalade ("the sound that spreads") record label. Gomelsky had named the duo Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon, envisioning them as a sort of English Simon and Garfunkel, a notion Kevin Godley agreed with.

"Yeah, I can see that," he recalled to rock critic Dave Thompson. "The songs we were writing back then were kinda acoustic, rural-sounding stuff. When you're that kind of age, you are consciously copying someone, and we were probably consciously copying Simon and Garfunkel. It was only later in our careers, when we didn't really have too much time to think, that we started recording stuff that sounded like ourselves." Of Thinks: School Stinks, Godley added, "I still say that was a bloody good album. Most of the tracks were from the Frabjoy period and it's an interesting LP."

Eric Stewart, interviewed in 1976, recalled that Thinks: School Stinks presented a problem because it was so different from "Neanderthal Man": "It was totally alien to what people were expecting from us. It was a good record, a little ahead of its time. It was similar to the things we are doing now. It was very melodic with chord structures that hadn't been used before – and some of the sounds that we used on that album hadn't been heard at the time."

*** The songs ***


Bob McBeath: "We open with the single "Neanderthal Man", an irritatingly catchy song which may not have much to do with 10CC, but it is undeniably fun."


BMcB: "How Many Times" is a simple acoustic number with Crosby Stills and Nash like harmonies. Baz Barker adds some effective strings to the latter part of the song."

Midway through this song, a highly stylized string arrangement is introduced, recalling the type of orchestrations Marc Bolan was attempting in his pre-electric Tyranosaurus Rex days.

"How Many Times" was last single (released in the US) from Thinks: School Stinks. Unfortunately, it tanked on the charts.


"Desperate Dan" - a music hall piano-roll romp in the tradition of The Kinks (who name-check Desperate Dan in "The Village Green Preservation Society") or White Album Beatles at their most playful (think "Honey Pie," "Rocky Raccoon") - is Hotlegs' nod to the tough-as-nails (he shaved his beard with a blowtorch!), cowpie-loving Wild West character from Dudley D. Watkins's British comic strip The Dandy (which remains the world's longest-running comic strip, 1937-present!). And yes, a UK cow-pie (a meat-pie) is quite different from its US equivalent!

Desperate Dan corrals another cow-pie


Listen to "Take me Back."

"Take Me Back" is a mini-symphony of sound and, like "Suite F.A." anticipates later complex 10cc arrangements such "One Night in Paris" from 1975's The Original Soundtrack. It's a medley of three different motifs, starting off as a pretty ballad with Lol Creme and Eric Stewart's acoustic guitars recalling "Mother Nature's Son" from the Beatles's White Album. Then the middle passage turns into an Eric Stewart electric guitar workout, calling to mind some George Harrison solo from Abbey Road ("I Want You (She's So Heavy"?), only to return back to an acoustic outro.

BMcB: "Take Me Back" is another delicate acoustic piece which offers a further glimpse of the music of 10CC, the vocals once again being particularly notable. The structure of the song is interesting, as it shows a willingness to draw a number of styles into a relatively short piece.


Listen to "Um Wah, Um Woh."

An absolutely amazing song, and one in which the boys throw in everything but the kitchen sink, production-wise. Highlighted by a stellar Eric Stewart guitar jam-out in the middle.

BMcB: "Um Wah, Um Woh" is a rather unfortunate title for what is actually a pretty good pop song. It may not have the class of 10CC, but it also lacks some of the pretentious indulgences too.


Listen to "Suite F.A."

BMcB: "Suite F.A." is a three part, 13 minute suite written by Godley and Crème. It is similar in structure to the "One Night in Paris" trilogy which appeared on The Original Soundtrack but with a greater emphasis on acoustic and orchestral sounds. There is no great complexity to individual parts, but mood does change frequently offering at least a hint of prog."

Personally, this makes me think of Side 2 of Abbey Road, which is an unmistakable influence. Godley, for one agreed, telling Dave Thompson, "We just kept going until we had an album, complete with our version of side two of Abbey Road, 'Suite F.A.'"


"Fly Away" was a reworking of a Godley and Creme song that had earlier been released on a Marmalade record label sampler, 100 Proof as "To Fly Away" by Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon - with writing credit erroneously credited to Kevin Godley and Graham Gouldman. Marmalade was the short-lived British record label started in 1967 by pop impresario Giorgio Gomelsky; its roster included the early Godley and Creme band Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon, in addition to Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, Blossom Toes, and others. The same duo also recorded a Graham Gouldman track for inclusion on 100 Proof, "The Late Mr Great" (about a gentleman whose timekeeping was so bad he missed his own funeral!).

In fact, Gouldman proved to be the connection that brought Kevin Godley, then still a student at art school, to Giorgia Gomelsky's attention. In Children of the Revolution, Dave Thompson describes how it all happened.
One day in 1969, Gouldman asked Godley to join him at a Marmalade session. The moment Godley opened his mouth to unleash his ethereal falsetto, Gomelsky offered him a record deal. It was, Godley laughed, the prequel to a nightmare.

"More than anything, I recall the life change. The scene is still vivid in my head. A three-hour drive, in howling gale, from one life to another, leaving behind three years at Stoke on Trent College of Art and heading for London, and a totally unknown future. I remember crying and trying not to show it as Lol drove my MG Midget out of the college car park. I was missing everybody there before we even hit the road. I also remember the hood of the car flying up and smacking into the windshield and nearly killing us, then operating the wipers by hand through a crack in the soft top.

Things were calmer in the studio, but only just. "Cut to Eddy Offord behind the control desk at Advision Studios. A small, dark space smelling of last night's session. A whiff of weed and Afghan coats. Very London. Very hip. There was an old Mellotron in one corner, Giorgia, big and rumbling, coming on like a hip Rasputin and me singing in a real studio. Intimidating, impossible, the beginning of everything. When he decided to call us Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon, it was almost the end of everything."

The first song they worked on was "To Fly Away" and Godley recalled it was quite a challenging session. "It was the first time I'd stepped up to a microphone."

As Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon, Godley and Creme began work on an album in September 1969, recording basic tracks at Strawberry Studios with Eric Stewart on guitar and Graham Gouldman on bass; their debut Marmalade single, "I Am Beside Myself/The Animal Song" was released by the end of the month.

"We were more confident for 'I Am Beside Myself,' which had brass arranged by Tony Meehan, late of the Shadows," Godley recalled. "Graham may have played on these sessions. Not one hundred percent sure, but I do remember Keith Tippett being vaguely involved."

Of the Marmalade period, Kevin Godley recounted to Dave Thompson, "We were one of many new artists on a very cool label. We were obviously thrilled when both records came out, but learned a valuable lesson when they promptly disappeared. The rest is more haze than history..."

Indeed, Marmalade folded soon after the Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon single and 100 Proof compilation LP, but Godley had no regrets and valued the experience working in a "real" studio, an apprenticeship that would pay dividends in future.

"Giorgio certainly had the right attitude. I'm not sure anyone really knew what they were doing, but I think his overriding concern was to document the music that was around; he didn't really think the rest of it through. Full marks to him for being around, though, because nobody else was doing it. He got a lot of bands recorded that no one else would touch."


"Run Baby Run" is a basic blues rocker in the Canned Heat style, driven along by an insistent cowbell (more cowbell!) and guitar boogie vibe.

The opening lines and percussive rhythm of "Run Baby Run" were later reworked to become the basis for "Art For Art's Sake" on the 1976 10cc album How Dare You!.


"All God's Children" closes the album on a dreamy lullaby note, with Kevin Godley's angelic falsetto leading the harmony pack as he sings about sunny California (as only a Midlands-born Mancunian can!). Makes me think of "Golden Slumbers" from Abbey Road.

*** Extra Tracks from You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think of It ***


I'm so glad Amy purchased the You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think of It LP, if only because it contains this exquisite gem that makes the whole album worth it, even if it only contains four new songs. (I like it because she did think of it!) "Today" features all four original members of 10cc, with Graham Gouldman strapping on his bass guitar to play alongside Kevin, Lol, and Eric.

As "Easy Livin" critic Bob McBeath observes, "The song shows that the transition to 10cc was complete, and actually ranks on a par with pretty much anything the quartet recorded under that name. The wonderful arrangement includes orchestration and a great synthesiser ending. For fans of 10cc this is a real lost gem."

Watch/listen to "Today."


Listen to "You Didn't Like It because You Didn't Think of It."

This song, the B-side of "Neanderthal Man," spawned not one but two future 10cc ditties. The first part is an early precursor to the title track of 10cc's 1976 LP How Dare You!, while the second part turns into an early run-through of "Fresh Air for My Mama" (from 10cc's self-titled 1973 debut album).

A future two-fer!


"The Loser" was the B-side that probably should have been the A-side of Hotlegs' 1971 "Lady Sadie/The Loser" single. A slide guitar fan's wet dream, it makes me think of what Little Feat would sound like if they weren't so boring.

BMcB: "The loser" once again has the sound of an early 10CC song, the upbeat rock melody being basic but functional.


Released as a single in 1971 as a hopeful followup to "Neanderthal Man"'s success, "Lady Sadie" is a mid-paced funk number that McBeath, for one, thinks should have been left undisturbed. Kevin Godley called it "a faux Rolling Stones song that explored Eric's love of dirty blues guitar. It was so obviously other people's territory. It had a nice feel but it didn't chart. Probably didn't deserve to."


Looking back on Thinks: School Stinks, Godley told Dave Thompson, "It was great just to try to punch above our weight. It's not bad, but it's not us [10cc] yet, is it? At the time, we didn't recognize 'Neanderthal Man' for the inspired piece of nonsense it was. No tune. Stupid lyrics. 'We can do better than this, chaps.' We were young and subconsciously aping our heroes, like you do until the real you shows up, so 'Neanderthal Man' was this bizarre anomaly that pointed one possible way forward but we failed to see it."

Thank goodness.

In 2006, Godley sampled much of Thinks: School Stinks album for the mid-section of GG06's song "Son of Man" (GG06 being his band with Graham Gouldman, the two musicians once again a dynamic duo, just as before when they were '60s bandmates in The Mockingbirds). (Godley and Creme would later revisit this strategy on 1985's The History Mix Volume 1, when they sampled three 10cc songs as the song "Wet Rubber Soup.") "I could hear something of what we [10cc] eventually became, under all the other influences," Godley recalled later. "In truth, we didn't fully discover our own musical identity until we stopped trying so hard and started feeling."

Bob McBeath sums the LP up by saying, "In all, an album which should be part of the collection of any 10cc fan. There is a wealth of indicators here of how the sound of that band came about, not to mention some fine songs in their own right too. Personally, I rate this album higher than the majority of the 10cc albums which followed."

Now that's high praise, indeed! One thing's for certain: Thinks: School Stinks offers a fascinating look at where music was in 1970 and (especially on tracks like "Today") where four talented lads from Manchester would eventually end up. Or, as Dave Thompson put it. "Take one red-hot axe-man [Eric Stewart] steeped in the stew ofthe British beat boom and armed with a chart-topping US hit single [The Mindbenders' "A Groovy Kind of Love"]; add the best British songwriter this side of the Beatles [Graham Gouldman, author of "For Your Love," "Bus Stop," "No Milk Today," etc., etc.]; sprinkle on a couple of eccentric art students [Kevin Godley and Lol Creme] and lock them away in a studio of their own. God knows what you'd get today, and nobody was really sure what would happen at the end of the Sixties, either."

What you got from this mish-mash stew of talents and influences would eventually be called "10cc," a band that made some of the most beautiful, clever and complex music of their era. And on this album, you get to see three-quarters of that entity as a very promising - and very listenable - work in progress.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (*****)

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
by Shigeru Muzuki
English translation by Jocelyne Allen
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2011, 368 pages)

I just finished reading Shigeru Mizuki's graphic novel - his first manga translated into English! - about his traumatic experience (he lost his left arm and most of his friends) as a Japanese soldier in the South Pacific during WWII, Onward Towards Our Noble Death (Soin gyokusai seyo!, originally published in Japan in 1973 and reissued in April of this year by Drawn & Quarterly). Though Mizuki is best known for his yokai (ghost) horror manga subjects (especially those involving one-eyed boy Kitaro of the Graveyard, or GeGeGe no Kitaro, pictured at right), it was this fictionalized memoir of his 1943-1944 tour of duty at Rabual on the island of New Britain (now Papua New Guinea) that serves as one of the best anti-war testaments of all time. Though fictionalized, it is a 90% factual gunki-monogatari (war-tale); Mizuki only took the liberty, for dramatic impact, of having all soldiers in his graphic novel perish, when in fact 80 survived.

Mizuki's style is characterized by "cartoony" characters (and I have to admit, even though he lists his cast of characters at the beginning of the book, I had trouble telling them apart!) set against realistically detailed background drawings, an example of which is shown below.

"Noble death," WWII Japanese style

Scenes like those above remind me of another anti-war graphic novel, one from the other side of the world: Jacques Tardi's chronicle of pointless slaughter in WWI, It Was the War of the Trenches (C'etait la guerre des trenchees, Fantagraphic Books, 2010). Tardi also realized the absurdity of sending "cannon fodder" soldiers to their deaths in pointless charges out of the fetid, rat-infested trenches of France during the Great War, a conflict in which retreating soldiers were shot as traitors for not willingly falling on their swords - an M.O. echoed over 20 years later by Japanese brass in the jungles of the South Pacific. Stanley Kubrick masterfully captured the French military's absurd notions of "honor on the battlefield" in his early masterpiece Paths of Glory. A "trenchant" Tardi panel is shown below:

"Noble death," WWI French style

Publishers Weekly's review of Mizuki's book noted, "Onward joins the growing library of gekiga published by Drawn and Quarterly. Gekiga, roughly translated as “dramatic pictures,” is a manga genre that often focuses on the serious and tragic nature of life and can be compared to American indie or alternative comics. Mizuki is the fourth creator of the group of mangaka credited with creating gekiga in the late 1950s, a group that also includes gekiga pioneers Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Seiichi Hayashi, and Susumu Katsumata."

Perhaps Mizuki's account of wartime horrors was his attempt to exorcize his own personal demons (and lingering guilt over having survived). As he writes in the book's afterword, Rabual was one of the worst places to be in WWII for Japanese soldiers, who were considered less than human, and where almost 11,000 of these "subhumans" died during one of the war's bitterest campaigns. As a new recuit, Mizaki was beaten repeatedly for, as one officer in the story remarked, "New recruits are like tatami mats. The more you beat them, the better they are."

"In our military, soldiers and socks were consummables; a soldier ranked no higher than a cat," Mizuki writes. "Officers, NCOs, horses, soldiers: in the military hierarchy, soldiers were not even thought of as human beings, We were instead creatures lower than a horse...But when it came to death, it turns out we were human beings after all."

In other words, only when ordered to die in a pointless suicide charge against superior enemy forces - to go Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths - did the soldiers actually exist in the eyes of the honor-bound military hierarchy.

"Whenever I write a story about the war, I can't help the blind rage that surges up in me," Mizuki concludes. "My guess is, this anger is inspired by the ghosts of all those fallen soldiers."

War Is Over? If only!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Sametka (aka Caterpillar, The Velvet Caterpillar)
Animated by Zdenek Miler
Based on the story by Norman Colwin
(Kresleny Film, Prague, Czechoslakia, 1967, 14 minutes)
Released in the US in 1971 by Learning Corporation of America

I work at a large public library that still has hundreds, if not thousands, of videos in this, The Digital Age of the DVD. One of the things I most enjoy about shelf-reading "the Stacks" - the movable-shelves storage area that houses most of our educational videos - is discovering old and obscure videos for which there is little or no information. Usually, these are the blandest of the bland in terms of packaging and the scantest of scant in terms of the library's catalog record. I'm talking about a video for which there's basically a black VHS case and a title (typed on an index card!) - and, if I'm lucky, maybe a date of publication, running time, and one-sentence description (often inaccurate) in the library catalog. One such delightful recent discovery matching all of the above criteria was something called Caterpillar, "an animated fantasy about a caterpillar who dances his way to success and fortune as an internationally recognized performer."

Googling this title turned up nothing betyond what I had already learned. In fact, the title, release date, and running time were all inaccurate. But I like animation and I like discovering new videos in our collection on which no previous light has shone. Taking the video home, I was immedialy struck by its style, which I loved and which was distinctly European - this even though the video was credited to Learning Corporation of America - and its bright, simplistic animation and wordless narrative structure reminded me of Czech animator Zdenek Miler's Mole films; Miler, who is considered the Czech equivalent of Walt Disney, created dozens of wordless (for international market appeal) children's film shorts starring his little mole (or Krtek in Czech) between 1956 and 2002 for Prague's Kresleny Film Studio. And there was good reason why Caterpillar looked so familiar - it was a Zdenek Miler film!

Krtek the little Mole

The importance of "the Mole" to Czechs was underscored when Krtek was recently chosen as the mascot for NASA's space shuttle Endeavor - the brainchild of shuttle crew member Drew Feustal, who has indirect Czech roots through his wife. It's rather fitting, as Krtek had previously starred in a 1965 film and book adventure called Little Mole and the Spaceship! Zdenek Miler, now 90years old, was delighted by his fantasy becoming reality: “I never imagined anything like this for Krtek." Miler approved of a toy designed specifically for NASA and of Krtek’s mission logo (as shown below):

NASA's 2011 Little Mole logo

OK, back to Caterpillar...

Warning Film Scholars: there's hardly any information anywhere about this film. The most detail I could find on the Web as this forum thread by "DavidVillaJr" (surely not the FC Barcelona soccer star?) at the fedoralounge.com:

"Learning Corporation of America, 1971. The inevitability of change is revealed to a little boy in this animated tale of the caterpillar who danced. One day a little boy playing his harmonica, discovers a caterpillar who dances to his tunes. An entrepreneur discovers both the boy and the bug, and soon the dancing bug and the boy become big business all over the world. Suddenly, one day the caterpillar disappears. The boy searched everywhere, but could not find his friend. Then spring comes, and then one day a beautiful butterfly appears, dancing to the boy's tune. The boy decides to set the butterfly free. Primary to intermediate."

Even more intriquing was another thread at fedoralounge.com by Subvet642 that claimed "There is a live action version of the same movie starring Cary Grant. Once Apon A Time (1944) A Broadway producer finds fame with his new act - a dancing caterpillar."

Cary Grant bugs out watching a dancing caterpillar

Even weirder: it's true! How had I never heard of this Cary Grant film about a caterpillar that dances only to the song "Yes Sir, That's My Baby!"? A film directed by Alexander Hall with an all-star cast including Janet Blair, James Gleason (as McGillicuddy "the Moke"), Preston Sturges regular William Demarest (My Three Son's Uncle Charlie!), and Ted Donaldson as "Pinky" the mouth-organ-playing boy who discovers the caterpillar "Curly." Turns out that Once Upon a Time was originally a CBS radio play called "My Friend Curly" by Norman Corwin (from an idea by Lucille Fletcher Herrmann).

Watch the opening of Once Upon a Time.

Reading through the thread, I liked one fan's remembrance of how the boy-with-a-harmonica and his dancing caterpillar turned into an overnight, international sensation akin to the Beatles in the early '60s. As he described the boy and the caterpillar appearing on billboards all over the world, making their escape via helicopter from throngs of swarming fans, and even journeying to the Moon to play for astronauts, I knew the film was not only an example of classic animation, but also a cogent commentary on fleeting fame and the inevitability of change. Ah yes, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, life's only constant is change. Or as Heraclitus put it back in the Classical Greek Age, "You can't step twice into the same river." Even George Harrison noted, via Eastern mysticism, that indeed All Things Must Pass. Which is pretty heavy stuff for the Primary to Intermediate set!

Dancing on the Moon: "One tiny step for man, one giant leap for mole-kind!"

But, as usual with my raging, caffeinated ADD, I have digressed. Back to Caterpillar the film itself. For your viewing pleasure, I have tracked it down on YouTube and included the video clips (in two parts) below:

Watch "the Velvet Caterpillar Part 1."

Watch "The Velvet Caterpillar Part 2."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Skinny and Fatty (*****)

Blast from the past of "The CBS Children's Film Festival"

Skinny and Fatty (Chibideka monogatari)
Directed by N. Terao; written by Mitsuo Wakasugi and Seiya Yoshida
Cast: H. Sha (Kenkichi Komatsu), Y. Kataoke (Yuso Oyama)
(Japan, 1958, 46 minutes)
Watch entire film

Thanks go to Video Americain manager Scott Wallace Brown for tracking down a DVD-R version of this beloved chestnut from bygone days. Skinny and Fatty was easily my favorite movie from the CBS Children's Film Festival series, a 1967 television series hosted by the puppets 'n' puppeteer team of Kookla, Fran & Ollie. This 1958 children's film tells the story of chubby new-kid-in-school Oyama ("Fatty"), who is teased and ostracized until befriended by popular schoolmate Komatsu ("Skinny"), who shows him that he has to believe in himself and always try to do his best - even if he fails.

Skinny (Komatsu) and Fatty (Oyama)

Komatsu's attempt to help Oyama master the rope climb in gym class is particularly poignant, though not exactly tear-inducing this time around, viewing it 40 some years later.

Give 'em enough rope: "Don't quit!" Skinny implores Fatty

Like any good Baby Boomer, I was reared on KFO during the latter end of their original 1947-1957 run on NBC and ABC, probably first watching them in syndication in the early '60s (my childhood memory timeline really didn't start until JFK's assassination in November 1963 when I was 6 years old). But I really started to appreciate them when they moved to CBS to host this series featuring "films from all over the world especially for kids."

Behaving parents can watch, too!

As hosted by the "Kuklapolitan Players" - puppets Kukla ("doll" in Russian) and Ollie (aka Oliver J. Dragon), created and performed by Burr Tillstrom, and Fran Allison ( who had been working together as early as 1948, with the original puppet pair appearing even earlier in 1939) - this hour-long program featured dubbed, edited versions of foreign films that were suitable for children. And that's what made it so special to the pre-Globalization know-nothing nudniks of my generation, raised as we were on a map of the world that still listed almost half of Africa as "West French Africa."

The Puppeteer Team: Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison

The Kuklapolitan Players: Kookla, Ollie and Fran Allison

Sure, I was in elementary school by then, but I've always been visually oriented, and maps and books and National Geographic magazines were no substitute for seeing live-action kids from all over the globe eating, playing and studying in their native lands - kids who didn't look like me and who seemed to dress funny and eat weird stuff. I can safely say that everything I learned about foreign lands and cultures really started here (just as my friend Dave Cawley's lifelong fascination/obsession with All Things Japanese began with his exposure to '60s TV imports like Ultraman, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, Astroboy, Marine Boy, Gigantor, Tobor the 8th Man,and Speed Racer); in fact, Skinny and Fatty was probably the first foreign film I ever saw, and certainly the first Japanese movie. (And this is probably where we all first saw The Red Balloon, a film everyone from my generation knows!)

Two things I noticed right off the bat watching the film again was how trend-setting Japanese school kids were, toting their books around in little messenger bags that today have become, along with mp3 players and cell phones, de rigeur accessories for all young people. The other was a scene where Fatty tries to squeeze through a fence to catch up to Skinny, but gets stuck, to comic effect. The very same scene would be reenacted years later by Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver and his pudgy pal Larry Mondello in American TV's Leave It To Beaver program. I also noticed, in the scene where Komatsu's family is moving to a new home, that the Japanese pack their belongings in straw, instead of boxes. So many little, incidental details - the taking off of shoes when the children visit one another's houses; the everyday tea ceremonies; the communal bathing in which two unrelated boys cleanse each other - unfold in the film's 45 minutes to be stored away in viewer's cross-cultural memories. The film also touched lightly on the class system, for while the two boys may attend the same school, the well-fed Oyama is obviously from a wealthy family, while Komatsu's family is poor and must move away at picture's end to find work in the far-away mountain region.

The film uses athletic achievement as a narrative arc to show how Oyama's growing confidence under Komatsu's friendship and tutelege helps him achieve newfound popularity and belief in himself. At first, Oyama humiliates himself climbing the rope, but by year's end he is able to team up with his skinny friend to win accolades at the annual sports and games competition festival.

When Oyama pouts "I can't!"...

Komatsu says "Just do it, Oyama!"

The following clip highlights Oyama's progression from failure to success in competitive sports.

And, as the blogger at everydayfamily.com observed, not only does Komatsu teach Oyama the values of courage, friendship, self-pride and risk along the way, but "with the subject of bullying so up front these days, Skinny and Fatty addresses the issue with subtly and beauty."

By film's end, Oyama has learned to stand on his own two feet and runs to the hills to shout his thanks to his friend who's now physically far away but still near and dear to his heart.

The Climatic Finale: "Komatsu! Thank you!"

According to Pop-Cult.com, "The CBS Children's Film Festival was an hour-long program appearing sporadically beginning in 1967, until it joined the early-Saturday- afteroon schedule in 1971...The show ran in this format until 1977, when it was reduced to the half-hour CBS Saturday Film Festival, without the charming hosts. It continued to air irregularly until 1984."

(Trivial aside: Mystery Science Theater 3000's Joel Hodgson cited the CBS Children's Film Festival as one of his inspirations for creating the concept of MST. "It was just one of those shows from my childhood that prepared me for fully appreciating the greatness of MST in the future. You got to see a lot of goofy films from other lands." Even the framework - with a human host and two non-human sidekicks (with MST's Crow and Tom Servo filling in for Kukla and Ollie) introducing the films and then later talking about them and performing little skits - was similar to MST.)

Pop-Cult.com and other sites believe the titles that follow represent a complete listing of all of the films and programs shown during the Film Festival's run:

Adventure in Golden Bay - Czech, 1956
Adventure in the Hopfields - British, 1954
The Angel and Big Joe - American, 1975
Anoop and the Elephant - British, 1972
Bag on Bag - Russian, ?
A Bird of Africa - Japanese, ?
Birds Come Flying To Us - Bulgarian, 1971
Black Mountain - Soviet, 1970
The Blind Bird - Soviet, 1963
The Boy and the Airplane - ?
The Boy Who Wore Spectacles - Soviet, ?
The Boy With Glasses - Japanese, 1962
Bunnie - Polish, 1973
The Camerons - Australian, 1974
Captain Korda - Czech, 1970
Captain Mikula, the Kid - Yugoslavian, 1974
Charlie the Rascal - Swedish, ?
Chipmates - British, ?
The Chiffy Kids - British, 1976
Circus Adventure - Dutch, ?
Circus Angel - French, 1965
Clown - Spanish, 1969
Cold Pizza - Canadian, 1972
Countdown to Danger - British, 1967
Cry Wolf - British, 1968
Carole, I Love You - French, ?
Danger Point - British, 1971
Death of a Gaudy Dancer - Canadian, ?
Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World - British, 1973
Doggie and Three - Czech, 1955
Egghead's Robot - British, 1970
Elephant River - Ceylon, 1956
Felipa: North of the Border - American, 1971
The Firefighters - British, 1975
Flash the Sheepdog - British, 1966
Flay Away Dove - American, 1982
The Flying Sorcerer - British, 1973
For Boys Only is For Girls, Too - Czech, ?
A Friend - Italian, 1967
Friend or Foe - British, ?
Friends For Life - Soviet, 1971
Funny Stories - Soviet, 1962
Geronimo Jones - American, 1970
Get Used To It - ?
Ghost of a Chance - British, 1968
Giamador - ?
The Giant Eel - Czech, 1971
The Goalkeeper Also Lives on Our Street - Czech, 1957
The Golden Fish - French, 1959
Gosha the Bear - Soviet, 1971
Hand in Hand - British, 1960
Headline Hunters - British, 1967
Heidi - German/Austrian, 1965
Joey - American, 1964?
John and Julie - British, 1954
The Johnstown Monster - British, 1971
Jumping Over Puddles - Czech, 1970
The Legend of John Henry - ?
The Legend of Paul Bunyon - ?
Lionheart - British, 1968
The Little Bearkeepers - Czech, 1957
The Little Ones - British, 1965
Little Pig - Chinese, ?
The Little Wooden Horse - ?
Lone Wolf - Yugoslavian, 1972
Lost in Pajamas - Czech, 1966
Lucy and the Miracles - Czech, 1970
The Magnificent 6-1/2 - British, 1967
Mauro the Gypsy - British, ?
Me and You, Kangaroo - Australian, 1974
A Member of the Family - British, 1971
Miguel's Navidad - Mexico, ? Miguel: Up From Puerto Rico - American, 1970
Mischief - British, 1968
Mr . Horatio Knibbles - British, 1971
My Father, Sun-Sun Johnson - Jamaican, ?
My Main Man - ?
Nikkolina - Canadian, ?
Nina and the Street Kids - Swedish, ?
Nunu and the Zebra - South African, ?
On Snow White - Czech, 1972
The Orange Watering Cart - Hungarian, ?
Paddle to the Sea - Canadian, 1966
Paganini Strikes Again - British, 1974
Pero and His Companions - ?
The Promise - ?
The Ransome of Red Chief - Soviet, 1963
The Red Balloon - French, 1956
Soapbox Derby - Canadian, ?
Scramble - British, 1969
A Seafaring Dog - Soviet, ?
The Secret - ?
The Seven Ravens - German, 1937
Shok and Sher - Soviet, ?
Shopping Bag Lady - American, 1975
The Show Must Go On - Soviet, ?
Six Bears and a Clown - Czech, 1972
Sirius - Czech, 1974
Skinny and Fatty - Japanese, 1959
Stowaway in the Sky - French, 1959
Strange Holiday - Australian, 1969
That's My Name, Don't Wear it Out - British, ?
Three Nuts for Cinderella - Czech, 1973
Thunderstorm - French, ?
Ticko - Swedish, ?
Tiko and the Shark - Italian/French, 1965
Tjorven, Batsman, and Moses - Swedish, 1964
Tony and the Tick-Tock Dragon - Hungarian, ?
Turniphead - Italian, 1965
Tymancha's Friend - Soviet, 1970
Up in the Air - British, 1969
The Violin - Canadian, 1974
What Next? - British, 1974
Where's Johnny? - British, 1974
White Mane - Frenche, 1952
Winter of the Witch - British, 1969
The Yellow Slippers - Polish, 1961

The best site for detailed information about these films, as well as sample video clips, is the Kuklapolitan Website's CBS Children's Film Festival page at kukla.tv/cbs.html.

Watch "Skinny and Fatty" in its entirety (46:32)

Related links:
CBS Children's Film Festival (The Kuklapolitan Website)
CBS Children's Film Festival film listings (Pop-cult.com)
CBS Children's Film Festival (Wikipedia)
1967 CBS Children's Film Festival Commercial (YouTube)
1972 CBS Children's Film Festival Commercial (YouTube)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Michael Dane Star Traveler & the Black Velvet Express

Black Velvet Express
Where the Stars Kiss the Moon
(Flower Records, 2010)

Dane Williams: Vocals, acoustic/electric/slide guitars, Ebow
Michael Fiore: Acoustic/electric guitars
Gerard Moore: Bass guitar
Brian Hughes: Drums, percussion
Glenn Workman: Piano, keyboards

Artwork: Ron Komber
"There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by. There once was a note - listen!" - Pete Townshend, "Pure and Easy"

Black Velvet Express' Michael Dane, Star Traveler is a concept album about the sci-fi adventures of the semi-fictional space-age explorer "Michael Dane" and his quest to bring peace to the universe through the power of music ("the Notes"). I say "semi-fictional" because Michael Dane is actually a conflation of the first names of BVE guitarists Michael Fiore and his longtime friend (and fellow sci-fi enthusiast) Dane Williams, who composed this musical soundtrack to compliment an original story written by Mike Fiore.

BVE's Dane Williams and Michael Fiore

Where the Stars Kiss the Moon came about, Fiore explains, "When I sat down late one night to write a song about one of my favorite sci-fi movies, Forbidden Planet." (The film is one of my personal faves as well, featuring one of the most unusual and sought-after electronic soundtracks of all time.) That song, "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon," became the title track for the subsequent CD.

Fiore film fave: Forbidden Planet (1956)

For years his pal Dane Williams - who Fiore met when Dane came to Baltimore to become part of a group called Voices, a concept band consisting of musicians from surrounding cities on the East Coast - had been saying that they should do a CD together and, after writing "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon," Fiore thought he had just the right project. A photographer friend suggested that Mike create an alter ego for the name of the band and call it "Michael Dane." Though Fiore had already settled on Black Velvet Express as the band name, he kept the idea in mind when he decided to write a sci-fi story (dedicated to his "beautiful wife Deborah," his family, and friends) to go along with his song. (The BVE CD contains a free digital copy of the story, which can also be viewed at BlackVelvetExpress.com.) More songs came - all written by Fiore save the Fiore-Williams collaboration "Lullaby Dream" - and thus the song "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon" and the story "Michael Dane Star Traveler" became a collaborative project between two friends, as well as a concept CD.

Michael Dane's ancestor: Ziggy Stardust

If the idea of a space-rock concept album makes your memory harken back to David Bowie's breakthrough 1972 album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, rest assured - it's no mistake. You see, Fiore and Williams wear their glam rock and melodic Anglo-pop influences on their sleeves, citing Bowie, T Rex, Mott the Hoople, Badfinger, Kinks, Stones, Faces and especially The Beatles (the "four Liverpool lads" name-checked in Fiore's tale as keepers of "The Notes" that once created worldwide peace and harmony) as guiding lights and mentors. "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon," which appears twice on the CD (in electric and acoustic versions), is as anthemic a song as Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" and its intrepid-but-lonely protagonist Michael Dane recalls the lost-in-space travails of Major Tom "floating in his tin can" in Bowie's "Space Oddity." (Michael Dane even travels with his three dogs, though no mention is made whether, like Bowie's, they are Diamond Dogs.)

Ground Control to Michael Dane (illustration by Ron Komber)

In fact, from the very first note of this (literally) fantastic song, one cannot escape the comparison to Bowie's Ziggy-era sound. The guitar tunings (both acoustic and electric) evoke none other than Mick Ronson...and the pace, the engineering, the production - it all seems like a time capsule from 1972! (And to this glam rock fan, that's a very good thing!) But the CD cover (and accompanying liner note and story illustrations) evoke an even earlier era, with Ron Komber's artwork recalling '40s and '50s sci-fi pulp covers (thematically more in tune with Fiore's original inspiration, 1956's Forbidden Planet).

Ron Komber's pulpish cover art

Okay, let's just to back-pedal a bit...all the way back to the '80s. You see, I hadn't kept up with Mike Fiore (shown below) since the days when he drummed for The Accused, an early '80s New Wave outfit that regularly headlined at The Marble Bar and Baltimore area clubs.

Michael Fiore circa 1980

Under leader David Cawkwell, The Accused were kind of a big deal at the time and were one of the few bands playing the Marble Bar circuit that actually released a record, 1980's acclaimed 4-song EP on E.S.P (shown below).

"The Accused" EP. Clockwise from L-R: Mark Morgan, Kraig Krixer, Mike Fiore, David Cawkwell

Sometime around 1983-1984, I worked with Accused bass player Mark Morgan (who's now a professional photographer) at the Music Liberated record store he managed in the basement of the old Towson Center Mall (where other musicians, like Montgomery Clift-lookalike Mark Renner of Boys In the River, also worked - Mike Fiore may also have worked for Music Liberated at their North Plaza or Saratoga Street locations, but I just can't remember through the lazy haze of memory lapse); that was really the last time I thought about the Accused until the unfortunate passing of original Accused guitarist Kraig Krixer in January of this year.

Batter Up: Kraig Krixer Memorial Mixer pixers

At the memorial get-together that followed Kraig's death, countless friends and musicians who played with him turned up at Perry Hall's Batter's Box on Belair Road (Krixer's favorite watering hole) to pay their respects, including his former bandmates David Cawkwell and Mike Fiore (seen below).

David Cawkwell and Mike Fiore @ Kraig Krixer Memorial

Through the wonder of Facebook, I kept in touch with Mike and he sent me a copy of Where the Star Kiss the Moon to see what I thought. I was surprised to see he wasn't listed as the drummer, but as the guitarist - and that he's pretty good! Who knew? In fact, the whole CD is top-drawer and professionally recorded (kudos to Jason George of Towson's Nice Package Productions). Along with Dane Williams' fluid lead vocals, twin guitar strummers "Michael Dane" are amply supplemented by journeyman area musician Glen Workman (Crack the Sky, Howard Markman)'s atmospheric, ethereal keyboards, Brian Hughes' crisp percussion and Gerard Moore's rock-steady bass backing.

The Songs:

1. Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (M. Fiore)
"Push the button, open the door/Yeah, I know what you're looking for
You've come to this forbidden place/Out here in deep dark space
I'll be waiting here for you/Where the stars kiss the moon

Please don't take my love from me/It's all I have, can't you see?
There's a monster inside my head/You can't hide in your silver sled
I'll be waiting here for you/Where the stars kiss the moon

It's been such a long, long time/All alone inside my mind
Way down here in deep dark space/You must leave this forbidden place
I'll be waiting here for you/Where the stars kiss the moon"

The inspiration behind this song is clear in the line "There's a monster in my mind" for it recalls the "alien monster of the mind" hatched from Dr. Morbius' subconscious that wiped out all life on planet Altair IV in the film Forbidden Planet (itself a sci-fi rumination on Shakespeare's play The Tempest).

"There's a monster in my mind..."

This is a lovely song that deserves to be reprised (which it is later on track 5). And I love the crisp electric guitar solo in the middle eight that is like a restrained Ronson riff.

2. Simple Love Song (M. Fiore)
This mid-tempo rocker with the boss backbeat and plentiful guitar soloing caught my girlfriend's immediate fancy; when she heard me listening to the CD, she asked "Who's this?" When I told her, she replied, "It's really good - I can move my hips to this!" She added she could probably hoop her way through a low-impact aerobics workout to the record!

3. Distant Lights (M. Fiore)
"Running away in the dark/Always afraid of getting lost"

Glenn Workman's keyboards are put to their most effective use on the lilting "Distant Lights" while the standout sitar-ish guitar motif recalls session man Reggie Young's sitar solo in B. J. Thomas' hit "Hooked On a Feeling"! (Oh, in case you're wondering, Young - who worked with Elvis and a long line of country artists, including The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) - also played the sitar solo on The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby").

4. When Heaven Comes (M. Fiore)
"When Heaven comes, it's gonna come hard - Bang! Bang! Baby, bang bang!" A straight-ahead 4/4-on-the-floor rocker, and my choice for the "hit single." If "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon" is BVE's "Ziggy Stardust," then "When Heaven Comes" is the album's "Suffragette City."

5. Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (acoustic) (M. Fiore)
Reprised because it works just as well acoustically..a slower tempo, more mellow, more reflective feel. Just as "Rock and Roll Suicide" is the calm-after-the-storm following the rock-out of "Suffragette City"'s on Ziggy.

Watch "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (Acoustic)" (YouTube)

Watch "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon" (Acoustic Demo version)" (YouTube)

6. Lullaby Dream
This guitars-only instrumental closes out the song cycle on a peaceful, uplifting note. I like how the guitars interplay and play tag with one another...the second guitar motif reminds me of the start of the Big Star song, "Watch the Sunrise" (from 1972's #1 Record) and I almost expected to hear the ghost voice of Alex Chilton chiming in.

And thus ends the song cycle - and Michael Dane Star Traveler adventure - that is Where the Stars Kiss the Moon.

Be sure to check out BVE's web site (www.BlackVelvetExpress.com), which allows fans to view the lyrics and register for a free cover art print, view the lyrics. The website also provides song samples and the ability to purchase the EP thru CdBaby.com., iTunes Rhapsody, and other digital distributors.

Finally, BVE's web site concludes: We hope that people, dogs and aliens get as big a “Bang Baby” out of this release as we had making it. Join us and take a star filled journey through the “Distant Lights.”


Black Velvet Express Videos:
"Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (Acoustic)" (YouTube)

"Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (Acoustic Demo)" (Charles Funk Video)


Other reviews:
"... I love the throbbing groove and spooky slide ... It sounds as if a hybrid of 60’s San Franciso Ballroom Rock and some Pre-Punk Snarl from NYC was tossed into a Spin Cycle with 70’s London Glam..." - Michael Molenda, Guitar Player Magazine

Where The Stars Kiss The Moon is an excellent concept EP/album containing several alternative rock/pop gems. The opening title track is a song of real beauty, a moving story about love and loss "out here in deep, dark space." Based on the classic 1956 Sci-Fi movie Forbidden Planet, it's a perfect marriage of lyrics and music with a haunting melody you won't forget (love the eerie intro!) It's later reprised as an acoustic version with an equally haunting sound and feel. If you love Bowie's "Space Oddity," you should love this one, too.

"Simple Love Song" and "When Heaven Comes" are straight-ahead rockers with blistering guitar solos, throbbing bass lines and pounding drums ("Heaven," especially, has a fierce, driving intensity) while "Distant Lights" has a darker and more pensive mood and feel to it (love the new intro and arrangement on this one, along with the eastern-flavored sitar-like solo).

"Lullaby Dream" is the closing track. It's an instrumental using guitars only which shift back and forth between G and D major, with layered chordal harmonies and a clean, sparkling solo - a pretty gem of a song with an uplifting vibe - a good note to end things on.
- heliumbound


Related Links:
Black Velvet Express (Official site)
Black Velvet Express (Facebook)
Black Velvet Express (MySpace)