Thursday, February 24, 2011

February 5th, 1953 - Peter Pan Soundtrack, Composed by Sammy Fain, Sammy Cahn, Frank Churchill, Winston Hibler and Ted Sears.

Before I begin this week's review of Walt Disney's Peter Pan, I want to backtrack a little bit, back to my review of Carmina Burana. I'm not sure why this slipped my mind the first time, but there is an AWESOME cover of O Fortuna by mathcore legends, Botch.

If you dig that, I highly suggest trottin' yerself down to your local record store, and picking up a copy for Botch's "Unifying Themes Redux". There is also a badass cover of the B-52's classic "Rock Lobster" done in the hardcore punk style.

But there will be plenty of time to talk about Botch and the B-52's later. You're here for Peter Pan, right? Right!

So, when I was a kid, I had this little Peter Pan storybook that also came with a cassette tape with some spoken dialogue and some of the songs on it. It was one of those read-a-long books, and I loved it, because Peter Pan was one of those Disney movies I never owned on tape as a child. You know how Disney can be, release a movie for a little while, and then yank it off the shelves for years. Go ahead, go to a store and try to find a copy of Tron. You can't! And you won't find it again until Disney releases it on Blu-Ray, and it will stay on the shelves again for maybe 2 or 3 months before getting pulled yet again.

The exact same thing was true with those big white plastic clam shell VHS tapes they used to sell. They'd only be around for a little while, and then mysteriously vanish. I'm not certain what Disney's fetish is with forced scarcity. I mean, it must be making them some money somehow, I don't know. All I know is if you head into any used record or movie store, you'll find those gross, cracked, white clam shells en masse on slae usually for under 5 bucks.

As for the soundtrack of Peter Pan, I'm amazed at how little info I could dig up on physical releases. All wikipedia talks about are the various Disney music compilations songs from the film have been featured on. I've seen it on Vinyl, and I know I had a tape from a storybook. Then, much later on, when Disney was releasing all the movies on DVD, each film's release coincided with a remastered soundtrack on CD. This soundtrack was not nearly as monumental as Snow White's, which was already fifteen years old. MGM's "Singin' in the Rain" had only been released last year, and for such a phenomenal hit as that was, American movie-goers and music lovers would have gone into riots if there was no accompanying soundtrack release.

The Peter Pan soundtrack I'm familiar with will always be the one on that little read-a-long tape. One notable quirk about this release is that the music was lifted directly from the finished version of the movie. This means that if during any of the songs in the movie, there was a piece of dialogue, or sound effect, it showed up on this tape. The instance that sticks in my mind the most is during "Following the Leader", when John and Michael are marching with the Lost Boys. Michael bumping into the "rock" that later turns out to be the giant rhino is audible. John "honking" the nose of the sleeping bear with his umbrella is audible as well. In fact, I think as a child I listened to this tape so much that I've now memorized the cues for these out of place sound effects!

This is a CD I'd like to get eventually, it's been awhile since I've really heard these songs. Aside from that, it's a cartoon that has so far, gone untouched by Youtube sensation Pogo, who's remixed Hook, but not it's 1950's Disney originator.
Perhaps it's not in the cards, but a man can dream about the possibilities, can't he? :D

See you next time, when the king of Rock and Roll himself takes the stage. I'll be reviewing Elvis Presley's self titled debut. After that, Johnny Cash and his hot blue guitar will grace these bloggy pages.

Till next time ladies and germs.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

1937-1944 – Swing Tanzen Verboten - Swing Music and Nazi Propaganda Swing During World War II

It's time to take a break from the generally lighthearted fair I've been writing on these past several weeks, and take a sharp turn into some genuinely dark territory.
Swing Tanzen Verboten! is a compilation I happened across during my Tower days. Since I was just a kid, I had a fascination with World War II, some would go on to say I was more fascinated with World War II than most kids my age. By "kids my age", I mean 4th grade, and by "more fascinated" I mean "at all interested". Funny how everything seems to root back to 4th grade... hmm...

My 4th grade teacher was a brutish, impossible man who seemed like he was just born angry. Being part of his class was stressful, because you never knew what was gonna set him off. But underneath that large personality flaw, he was actually a pretty good teacher. I am not certain if he actually was a soldier in the second World War, but he was the right age, and he talked the talk.
Every day was story time! One usually does not associate elementary school with having actually learned anything, but I walked away from that class knowing more about Pearl Harbor, Japanese internment camps, the Nazis, American and German military tactics and weaponry than an entire year's worth of the History Channel! He would even sometimes veer off into a tangent, and talk at length about American pop culture during war time. So needless to say, I got a little high on nostalgia years later when I found this collection sitting on the shelves at work.

The first disc in the collection is enjoyable, but also forgettable. It is comprised mostly of pre-war German swing, and then develops into a chronological compendium which leads all the way up to 1944. A quick aside for the unconverted, it should be noted the Germans HATED swing during the reign of the Third Reich. They associated it with poor minorities, unclean, not pure German, and hence it was dubbed "Entartete Kunst", or "Degenerate Art."

a hilariously racist caricature of a Negro/Jew wailing on a sax in a 1938 propaganda poster.

Before it was illegal, the Germans took a very blaissez faire approach to the style. At first it was merely mocked and ridiculed, then it was flat out banned. As soon this happened, the style was forced underground, where it flourished! The third and fourth discs are, without exaggeration, AMAZING collections of swing and jazz. Most of these recordings were made in occupied Europe after Hitler went full tilt on the continent. Disc 3 features French and Belgian artists very heavily, and as such, Django and Joseph Reinhardt is the main focus. Disc 4 features an incredible amalgamation of artists from all over Europe, many of whom I've never heard of, but enjoy none the less.

I'm saving Disc 2 for last, because it is by far the most noteworthy, as well as the creepiest to listen to. Enter "Charlie and His Orchestra", while they weren't the only underground swing artists surviving in Germany, they were however, commissioned by Heinrich Goebbels. In order to broadcast pro-Nazi agenda swing music across the nation, Karl Schwelder, (AKA Charlie), was trusted with a sacred task! Write swing lyrics that will demoralize the enemy! What came of the project were a series of eerie "Weird Al" type parodies of existing, popular swing tunes, in which Charlie trashes the Jews, and mocks Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. His lyrics taunt the American and British military with:

"Why are the ships always sinking and blinking at me?
What makes the British stop drinking from their cup of tea?
It's now the season, the reason, let me explain what it means,
German Submarines!"

Karl Schwedler also known as "Charlie". This goofy motherfucker struck fear into the hearts of the Allies everyday... with MUSIC!

Those of us who have the benefit of hindsight know the Nazis lost the war, so these songs are little more than an amusing curiosity to us. However, think of them in a more historical context. Imagine the American and British soldiers who happened across these songs on the radio, when they were trying to get some R&R when not in combat. A musical taunting of your nation's wartime efforts. Fellow soldiers', possibly friends' horrible demise put into song! Granted it does not mean much to me now, but I can understand the mindset that it must have been trying to undermine.

It's worthy to note also that the music wasn't just throwaway swing either. The style may have been outlawed in Germany, but that doesn't mean they didn't know how to do it! The style is very hip, contemporary, and very much like what they would be listening to anyway in Britain and America, that's how it was able to creep into so many homes, and military bases.
This isn't the best contemporary comparison, since Al-Qaeda isn't exactly known for it's chart topping pop singles, but imagine if Osama Bin Laden commissioned some hip young pop star to record a hit radio friendly rock song about how awesome 9-11 was. Now imagine it was on the radio CONSTANTLY! Imagine it sandwiched right in between "How you Remind Me" by Nickelback and "Chop Suey" by System of a Down on the AM rotation. That's kinda what Charlie was getting away with!

However, it is good to note that Churchill was actually a fan of Charlie and His Orchestra. He sarcastically commented that the changed lyrics were more funny than they were threatening. Good to know the Prime Minister was not so easy to shake.

Thanks for tuning in to another update on "Best Thing Ever". Next week we'll be jumping into the 50's, analyzing the soundtrack to Disney's version of Peter Pan.
In two weeks, I'll be ushering in the birth of Rock and Roll with Elvis Presley's self titled Debut.
I'm not all about operas, soundtracks and racist swing music! ;-)

On a random side note! Today is also an important day in music history!
Today, Lady Gaga released the single for her second (and a half-ish) album "Born This Way."
I'd tell you to go check it out, but chances are, within the next couple days or so, the song is gonna find YOU! ;-)

See you all next time!!!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

August 12th 1939 - The Wizard of Oz Soundtrack, Composed by Harold Arlen and Herbert Stothart

Like Snow White, the Wizard of Oz score has firmly implanted itself into our cultural subconscious. I think every child born now is born with a precognitive knowledge of the lyrics to "We're Off to See the Wizard."
Unlike Snow White however, The Wizard of Oz did not see an official soundtrack release at the time of its debut on the silver screen. It did not see a release until a full 17 years later, when the film was first aired on that newfangled contraption, the television! Before that, Decca put out a weird sort of "sound alike" album, not with the original cast. Judy Garland was the only returning voice, but the rest of the cast was replaced with the "Ken Darby Singers", whoever the fuck THEY are. This kinda sucks, because the munchkins don't sound like munchkins, they're just regular old male choir voices, they couldn't even spring for sopranos. Glenda is sung by some unnamed opera singer, which is sort of cool, but definitely not what I signed on for. Interestingly enough, it is from these recordings that the original 78rpm of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was taken, and hence, it is arguably the most recognized version of the song.

My own experience with Wizard of Oz is as prolific as the score itself. I of course have very early memories of having seen the film as a child, but that in itself is not very unique. When I was in 4th grade however, I was part of a weird school musical thing. It was an event in which a class just sang songs in front of the school, and the parents. This was extremely prevalent when I was in grade school, it seemed like they were always trying to make us sing, or act, or do something. This happened ALL through school. You might not think this was such a huge deal, but bear in mind, this was not choir class, this was... just CLASS! Everyday, we dropped our history lesson, or our math lesson and piled into the auditorium (which had the permanant smell of dry, stale urine) and sang, for an hour or two.
Our teacher was really into it too, he used to yell at kids who sang off key! I guess the school system saw the writing on the walls that all the labor jobs were being outsourced overseas, so whether or not we succeeded at school, at the very least we could sing and act! In either case, this little event had no real specific purpose. It wasn't a play, and the songs they made us memorize had only a very loose fitting theme. I don't remember all of them, but I know "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was in there, along with "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", "Circle of Life" and "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" from the musical "South Pacific."

What do "The Wizard of Oz" and "South Pacific" have in common? Fourth Grade!

Despite the fact we were in essence being forced to memorize and perform these songs, I came to really enjoy them. I remember our teacher making everyone in the class a copy of the cassette tape, so we could practice at home. I kept the tape long after our performance was over and done with, and listened to it for shits and giggles.
This was one of those huge 60 minute tapes too, so I actually used my hand held tape recorder to add more songs after the program. Usually random Disney songs, or Beatles songs that I particularly liked. I would sometimes even "announce" the next song on the track list, like a radio DJ. Me and some of the other kids who lived in my apartment complex took this concept to a hilarious extreme when we invented our own radio show. We went all kinds of wacky, we would "interview" people by putting the tape recorder up to the TV, and ask questions which lead into the dialogue. That's how I landed my career making interview with the Super Mario Bros. Later in life, i tried taking some classes in broadcasting and communications, but found them to be powerfully dull.

Fast forward to middle school, I wanna say 7th or 8th grade. This is when I first heard the rumour that you could turn down the sound on Wizard of Oz and play Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" instead, and see all kinds of weird parallels between the actions on screen, and the lyrics and/or music playing on the album. I gotta say, I tried this so many times and never really saw anything significant. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I never did any drugs.

What do Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd Have in common? DRUUUUUGGGGGZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!

I really wanted this to work, because I'm way into urban legends, so I played the movie a number of different times, following different sets of rules each time, but never really saw what was supposedly the huge payoff. I mean, i suppose the music fits in as much as a rock record CAN fit into a musical, whose music was written primarily in 4/4 time. It's not THAT hard to find connections when you think about it like that. When I get fed up with this experiment, I eventually started to watch the movie without Pink Floyd, just out of nostalgia. Ironic that my biggest exposure to this movie and its music involved me muting the music at first.

Finally, fast forward to now, or at least, to a few months ago. I had a very recent and very poignant life experience with Wizard of Oz, which I'll probably carry around with me for the rest of my life.
So! One of my best friends ever, Courteney, who I met when I went back to school in 2008 recently transferred to a college in Japan, like the badass she is. This most recent holiday season, she came back out to visit family and friends. I drove up to the Saratoga mountains in a pretty awesome California winter rainstorm to go visit her at her family's home for dinner. After we ate, Wizard of Oz JUST so happened to be playing on TNT.
We all gathered in the living room, in the glow of the family's huge Christmas tree, and got taken in by a movie which predated every one of us. We delighted in the time tested comedy, and fondly remember every lyric to every song.
Courteney and her family are pretty much like a second family to me, more like a 3rd, maybe 4th family, I seem to just implant myself into my other friends' families like a body snatcher, but that's beside the point. The point is, it was a wonderful night spent with wonderful people, and I will forever associate that night with Wizard of Oz. :D