A Social History of Jamaican Album Covers
My latest Smashing Magazine rant is up: A Social History of Jamaican Album Covers.
The intention was to write something that’s enjoyable if you’re a fan of the music, interesting if you’re not a fan, and validating if you hate the music. Accordingly, my favorite twitter comment so far was when somebody wrote, “This looked totally obtuse to me at first, but then I realized it’s actually well-executed.” High praise indeed!
Matthew Wilder Running Diary
Speaking of Congolese mambo… here’s Matthew Wilder!
A few comments on this:
00:01-00:17: Mystifying disparity between the number of people on stage doing things versus the overall quietness of sound. There seem to be 95 people dancing, playing various keytars and instruments and pumping out Matthew Wilder’s unique blend of white reggae… and yet I can only hear only a wafer-thin synth upbeat, some drums, vocals, and one or two other things.
00:18-00:22: great pink/purple discotard shirt combo from Matthew Wilder. Reminiscent of our old enigmatic friend Bob Blank.
00:22-00:33: Shocking slur regarding Chinese and laundry. WOW. Pretty culturally insensitive, Matthew Wilder. Even for 1982.
01:01: Wilder’s enunciation of cocky is just totally awesome. I can’t watch it without laughing.
01:33: Whoa, bitch just cut in from outta nowhere. I know I accused Matthew Wilder of cultural insensitivity above…. but is it bad that I automatically assumed that this was Phylicia Rashad until I did some research and discovered it’s actually Marilyn McCoo?
01:49-01:52 After cocky, the way McCoo walks off the stage here is the second funniest thing in this video. Again, I laugh every time.
02:20-02:50 I’m amazed that, at some point in this stretch, they don’t do the thing where they suddenly go up one half-step to breath temporary new life into the chorus. You know what I mean by this, right? Instead, Wilder just emerges from behind his synthesizer to do some dancing, including a weirdly fetal move at about 2:47 that involves shaking the mic back and forth with both hands.
My latest time-consuming shenanigan has been to organize a show of student work for an exhibition called Rock-A-Mambo. The work comes out of an assignment called ‘Culture & Cliché’ that I gave to eight successive semesters of bewildered students for my Ideas Generation class. Basically, students are tasked with designing a CD cover (although I’m not sure that some of the younger ones even know what a ‘compact disc’ is these days) for 17 tracks of weird/rare/cool Congolese mambo, from this nearly-forgotten period of music history in the late 50s/early 60s when musicians in central Africa were super into Cuban dance rhythms.
The point of this musical selection isn’t to be willfully obscure. OK, maybe it’s partly that. But it’s also about the fact that the music is so out-of-left-field that students have to do tons of research to unpack the backstory behind the music. And, because it’s a strange urbanized hybrid of African and Latin forms, the usual trusty clichés of ‘barefoot village kid beating on congo drum as giraffe lopes by’ don’t cut it here.
As to expected, there are always a few students each semester who are always stymied by the nature of the assignment. But many more have produced fantastically varied, well-informed, creative responses to the assignment. So, I’m having a show with an opening party on Thursday. Good times.
I originally learned about the genre from our friend Alastair— check out the music below. Above is a poster I made for the exhibition, with an unauthorized assist from Malick Sidibé.
Not As Good As Before, But Still Pretty Good
There are many annoyingly two-horse aspects to life in Prague. You can’t get a half-decent burrito here, for starters. People don’t throw parties with American red cups. (In fact, Czech people aren’t really much into throwing parties at all. I’ve been to three proper house parties in Prague and one of them was my own. This is a depressing thought that makes me glad I’m leaving here for a while.) But every now and then, the two-horsiness pays off in the form of an opportunity you wouldn’t have in a more culturally fished-out place… as in, the chance to go see Belle and Sebastian play their first-ever show in Prague two nights ago to a crowd of about 500 people.
I’d seen Belle and Sebastian play on their last tour, in San Francisco in 2006, a few months before I left for Europe. What I mainly remember about this show is (a) liking it, but also (b) the fact that I’d never gone to any show where my preconceptions about the scale of it were so entirely wrong. The 2006 show was at the San Francisco Design Center on Townsend St., which I’d quizzically biked by a few times and took to mean ‘a large room about the size of Slim’s or Bimbo’s with a few hundred people watching’. Instead, it turned out to be in the Design Center’s MASSIVE concourse, which basically reminded me of an aircraft hangar and seemed to involve about 10,000 people. (A check of the SFDC’s web site indicates that the concourse can accommodate ‘6,800 for a reception’, which would seem to confirm about 10,000 people tightly packed in). Of course, this happened a long time ago, and I’d been drinking beforehand, so I could easily be off by a good 15-70%, but still… it seemed really big.
This time, it really was in a big room (the Roxy) about the size of Slim’s or Bimbo’s with a few hundred people watching. Once the band took the stage and made the obligatory effort to speak a few words in Czech, they launched into a song off their new album. Which established the only persistent downer of the evening: each time they played a track off the pretty boring ‘Write About Love’, the energy would immediately droop noticeably and it seemed like both the band and audience alike would rather just Tivo through the song to the next one. Still, it wasn’t SO bad for three reasons: (1) they played lots of old stuff; (2) sometimes, a new song would end in a sort of instrumental build-up, and that part they would get legitimately into it; (3) Belle and Sebastian seem like nice, realistic people who aren’t going to let the evening be ruined by the fact that their new album isn’t very good. I’ve been at other shows in such circumstances that seemed infused with a cosmic hostility, as the band visibly raged against the evidence that they’d lost their earlier powers. Anyway: since they opened with a song off the new album, I had nothing to compare it against and just thought, ‘Wow, the sound is REALLY bad.’ But as soon as that had ended and they’d moved on to ‘Step Into My Office’, it was though the ‘sound’ had magically ‘cleared up.’
Two other points:
- The evening also scored remarkably low on the ‘annoyances of being around large groups of people’ factor (something that is itself a positive characteristic of Prague- people seem to know how to congregate in large numbers without being homicidally irritating). The only exception was during the subdued beginning of ‘Judy And The Dream Of Horses’, when some guy took it upon himself to whistle along with Stuart Murdoch. Can you imagine the thought process (or lack thereof) that would cause you to do this?
- For me, the evening was a personal introduction into a classic trope of adulthood: the ‘getting a babysitter so you and your wife can go see a band that you started listening to 10 years ago’ routine. In perfect form, the sitter was 20 minutes late, leaving us to anxiously hustle there and imagine that we’d perhaps miss the first song or two.
Which Continent Sang What?
The Guardian and several other news outlets have – predictably, yet brilliantly – had ‘Who’s line is it?’ contests where you have to guess whether a given quote was uttered by Charlie Sheen or Muammar Gaddafi. I tried this one and got only 6 of 10 right.
Shortly, however, my mind began to wander and consider other less obvious topics that one could apply this same game to. A natural fit seemed to be matching pretentious lyrics with the three major rock bands that have had the gall to name themselves after continents.
Let’s meet the Candidates:
Now, their espoused philosophies:
I’m gonna miss you, yes, I will
No matter who you are I’ll love you still
For my life is my conscience, the seeds I sow
And I just wanted to let you know
And from the wreckage I will arise
Cast the ashes back in their eyes
See the fire I will defend
Just keep on burning right to the end
You know it ain’t easy
Running out of thrills
You know it ain’t easy
When you don’t know what you want.
Answers in next post!
Edit: Looks like the diminutive island of Japan just trumped these bloated continent-bands for epic lyrical source material.
The Dissonant Triangle
The discourse highlight of my Twitter dabbling so far (and may I never write ‘Twitter dabbling’ ever again) happened in the wake of the Superbowl halftime show, when somebody wrote:
Next year, Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, Nickelback and Maroon 5 to perform at Halftime of Super Bowl. Only way it could be worse.
This reminded me of an occasion when a bored co-worker and I were thumbing through the SF Weekly and noticed that Lionel Richie and Iron Maiden were playing reunion tour dates on the same night. That led us to briefly consider the following scenarios: (a) what if they were playing together on the same bill, and (b) what would be a potential third act that would be equidistant from the other two. “Phish!” my co-worker ingeniously offered. “Right!” I fantasized. “And as an encore, they could all jam on ‘Hello‘ together”:
Lo, the concept of the Dissonant Triangle was born: three bands that are all equally dissimilar from one another. When I offered this idea up on Twitter as a possible Superbowl halftime act for 2012, somebody fired back another proposal:
Joni Mitchell, Menudo, and KISS sing Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”
Having just posted my Hooters deconstruction, I had to add one more:
The Hooters, GWAR & Kenny G doing extended ‘And We Danced’
Unfortunately, this is as far as it got. Any one care to extend the concept?
(Top image: unrelated venn diagram of my own conception)
Something About King Tubby
There’s a third article for Smashing Magazine that I’m currently doing research on and kind of poking around and mulling over. Just to be clear: the first article was on type– that one’s done; the second one is the thing about the unicorns– that one’s almost done. This third one is about typography and design in Jamaican album covers: the conceit is that you can track two dueling tendencies of colonialism and exploitation vs. black nationalism in the visual themes and type forms of albums associated with ska, rocksteady, dub and reggae. In a sense, it’s an eighteen-times-more-serious counterpart to the Showcase of Hideous Xmas-Themed Reggae Covers I did for the blog a few months back.
The nice thing about this is that its been a good excuse to pore over Lloyd Bradley’s This Is Reggae Music again and other favorite sources, and get a not-really-necessary-but-self-indulgently-pleasant update on all my favorite pet issues. There’s the legend of Earl ‘Ska’ Campbell, who reportedly killed himself by soloing too vigorously. There’s the fact that King Tubby was, of all incongruous things, a clean freak who didn’t smoke pot. But there’s one detail that I came across tonight that I was particularly happy to recover, because I read about it more than ten years ago in the liner notes to a dub compilation but couldn’t remember all the details or exactly where I’d read it (has that ever happened to you? It’s maddening). It’s an eye witness account of the first time dub was played to a live crowd:
The crowd did a quick double take and then went wild, pushing down the fence until it was flattened, and then rushed in, knocking the speaker boxes flying.
It turns out to be music historian Steve Barrow (the same guy who started Blood And Fire Records), describing King Tubby’s first public airing of dub. I love the idea of a herd of listeners spontaneously rioting in response to the invention of producer-oriented music. In a less specific sense, I love any account of an overwhelming, uncalculated mass reaction to a piece of pop music. It comes from the same place as the first time that Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’ was played on some pokey Memphis radio station and the entire surrounding county area was seized with a collective mania, jamming the station’s phone lines for hours on end (recounted in Last Train to Memphis). It can come in less dramatic but more pervasive ways, too– remember when ‘Hey Ya!’ came out in 2003 and it seemed that Outkast had cracked some code for getting white and black people to go nuts over the same music. (Note: I ripped off that phrase about ‘cracking the code’ from some Pitchfork writer, but I’m too lazy to add yet another link to this post).
That’s what’s great about pop music: it’s the only thing on earth that can suddenly make a large group of people (hundreds, thousands, millions even) urgently experience some common sensation that they had no idea they had in common with tons of other people. Not even politics can do that. Sure, what’s going on in Egypt right now is important than ‘Hey Ya!’… but everyone in Egypt already knew they hated Mubarak. That’s the difference.
A Hooters Running Diary
A running diary of the Hooters’ contemptible ‘And We Danced’ video:
[Note: if you’re looking this and trying to decide whether or not you want to read on, I suggest scrolling down and clicking on the second video clip– it’s the best part.]
00:07-00:14: Opening scenes. A hazy vision of rural, 1950s heartland America, a throwback to a more innocent time of sock hops and white picket fences.
00:15-00:30: Except that now two teenage boys are being thrown into the back of car, presumably as a prelude to being slain execution-style at some later point in the video. First-ever carjacking? I’m confused.
00:38-00:44: Strains of mandolin and melodica. Hmm, this isn’t so bad. Maybe we lucked out and stumbled into a Los Lobos video.
00:45-01:01: Senseless parade of 1950s tropes continues sweeping shot of vintage cars waiting to enter a drive-in movie.
I tend to associate the cultural hard-on for fifties revivalism with the 1970s (e.g. Grease, Happy Days) and forget how much it haunted us through the eighties and even into the nineties. We weren’t really into the clear until The Wonder Years was finally cancelled in 1993.
01:02-01:15: Uh oh.
01:16-01:17: Girl gets out of car and bounds towards Hooters while executing one of the two classic 80s dances: skipping while vigorously clapping hands above head.
01:19-01:20: Senseless torture of two boys trapped in car trunk at the hands of their captors. I can barely watch.
01:24-01:26: Who represents the better catch: A bee-bop baby on a hard day’s night (in other words, the heroine of this song)? Or: A small town girl on a Saturday night, albeit one who’s dancing like she’s never danced before?
01:27-01:30: Hooters keyboardist/vocalist Rob Hyman deftly executes a variant of above-described hopping-and-clapping dance with hands clapping below head.
01:31-01:34: There are a lot of different cheesy things in this video… but Hyman’s hand gestures during the ‘She was hanging on Johnny, he was holding on tight” part are really a crime against humanity.
01:49-01:51: WOW. Just a tremendous buildup to the chorus. Hyman’s combination hand-flip/leg-kick move at 01:50 might be the signature moment of 80s cheese ever captured on camera.
Let’s slow the playback rate down to 10% and take a closer look at the moves of this lovetorn young troubador:
Maybe I should do an animated gif version of the big climax… hmmm.
02:04-02:08: Satanically, there’s now second Hooters lead vocalist (guitarist Eric Bazilian) who has the same voice as the first.
02:20-02:36: There’s something about each of these guys’ necks that is too taunt and generally very hard for me to look at.
03:30-03:43: No depiction of 1950s teenage America could be complete without an appearance by The Nerd. So here is he is: cringing in fear and throwing popcorn all over himself as bikers drive past him. God, this video is so wholly unimaginative, I want to kill myself.
03:50-03:52: Kidnapped boys finally beaten to death with a tire iron.
03:54: Look closely at the bottom-right corner of screen and you’ll see that Hyman does the hand-fling/leg-kick move AGAIN here.
04:30-04:38: In a final twist, the mandolin and melodica part is reprised, but with Hyman and Brazilian having displaced the Los Lobos guys.
04:39: “And we sucked! Like a wave on the ocean, romance…”
Showcase of Hideous Christmas Reggae Album Covers
Semi-loyal reader KG recently saved me from the terrifying drought in good new music releases by turning me onto Scratch Radio, a station that streams nonstop rocksteady and dub. One of my stock tiresome soapbox rants is the position that Jamaican music is the most unfairly maligned and buttonholed genre or nationality of music (next to, perhaps, early gay underground disco, but that’s a post for another day). It’s a case of one particular artist becoming so dwarfingly popular relative to every other artist that most people automatically think ‘Bob Marley!’, when in fact he’s just the tip of the iceberg (note the self-conscious authorial attempt to avoid referring to the variety of Jamaican music as a ‘rainbow’). It would be like if people failed to recognize any contribution to rock music besides that of, say, Elvis Presley. Or the Insane Clown Posse. You get my point.
The beauty of Scratch Radio is that, in terms of vocal selections, they generally eschew tired-out ‘Roots’ reggae in favor of tracks from the glorious rocksteady years (my friend once explained this preference by saying, “I liked it when they were singing about girls instead of Haile Selassie and Mount Zion’). However, as soon as November rolled into December, I suddenly had to beat a ragged retreat from Scratch Radio because they began playing the cheesiest holiday-themed reggae songs almost nonstop. Who knew that a tropic island had so many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of holiday covers? It makes a certain amount of sense, given that Jamaican artists have traditionally been willing to cover just about anything… but still.
Some album cover examples from this regrettable and surprisingly prolific trend:
Blegh. Having explicitly poked fun at candy cane lettering in the snarky article I recently wrote about type for Smashing Mag, I was delighted to see an instance of this crop up in the first example posted above.
Finally, two covers from this unfortunate genre that are kinda redeemable. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them good, exactly, but there are some likable things going on here:
See also: the incredibly entertaining 42 Reggae Album Cover Designs from Crestock.com’s blog. It includes such fantastic curiosities as Ugly Man’s Ugly Lover album, containing hit song ‘Computer’: