Artifacts of the Old World: I Need That Record


For some people, music is just another thing. A distraction. But, for others (like myself), music means a hell of a lot more. At some point, there was that one song, that one band that transformed everything. The one that made them want to be part of it in some way. Music for them is like what sports or politics or any other obsession is to other people. It informs everything about them. Conversations, friends, fashion, values. Whatever.

When I was a lowly teenager in Orlando in the mid-90s, my friends and I were heavily into punk and its offshoots. There were still a handful of independent music stores around at the time that catered to our tastes and one that we spent a lot of time at was called D.I.Y. Records. The store clerks there were basically like us, except older. They dyed their hair and knew the music and joked around with the people that wandered into the small space they rented in a strip mall down the highway from the state university. I used to go out there to put out copies of my zine and pick up copies of others’. On weekends, they opened up the backroom for local bands to play all-ages shows. We’d go and watch our friends perform and see kids around that we’d see at every show in town we could get into. We were young and music was a big deal to us and so, D.I.Y. Records became a kind of second home.

Brendan Toller’s 2008 documentary, I Need That Record: The Death (Or Possible Survival of) the Independent Record Store, would say that D.I.Y. Records helped forge a community. Music may have brought people there, but it was more than just a music store. Its local roots and that scene that we identified with gave us kids a sense of place, one that we never would have found (or will find again) had we done our shopping in giant, homogeneous chains. Not that we would have found what we were looking for on the shelves of a major retailer, anyways. Most of the stuff we loved listening to wasn’t played on commercial radio. And it sure as shit didn’t rate on any charts.

D.I.Y. Records closed not longer after that, and they say it was because of the rampant shoplifting. But, rather than go out of business entirely, they switched to an online and mail-order operation. And, rather ironically, the store became a Spanish church. And the community that the little record store (that could) fostered had been displaced, if it wasn’t killed off altogether since a lot of other shops closed probably within one or two years after that.

The story of D.I.Y. Records is a lot like the independent music stores spotlighted in I Need That Record are shown to be undergoing the same fate, closing their doors after some twenty or thirty years in the business. These were neighborhood staples that served as small sanctuaries for oddballs, weirdos, and fanatics that make up the universe of music junkies. With collections that spanned in the thousands, they were a place to make those beloved rare discoveries.

But sympathize as I might, it’s a little uncomfortable watching the owners as they’re at a loss for words, and some on the verge of tears, reminiscing and wondering what the hell they’re going to do next. Of those screwed by lease agreements, it’s not clear why the owners didn’t attempt to relocate. The customers, too, kind of ham it up, shaking a fist at big chains (more so than any other culprit in this changing business), and likewise, wonder where they’ll turn to for their music now, especially the ones who dig vinyl. Sure, you could say the Internet, but ex-Minuteman Mike Watt (who looked high during the interview) and ex-Patti Smith collaborator, Lenny Kaye, would say it just doesn’t hold the same sense of community. Although, the kids born and bred on the Internet might disagree.

So basically the question comes down to, what’s killing off the indies? These places that made it easy for kids to wander into and find this whole other world of music (it still is a little harder to do on the Internet, because you already have to know where to look), and three thousand of them shut down in the last decade. But, it soon becomes apparent that sales of hard media (not just CDs, but things like books and movies, too) have been on the decline for quite a while, forcing even major retailers like Tower, Borders, and Blockbusters out of business. What we were witnessing was basically a dramatic change in business models because of changing technology. I Need That Record attributes a lot of the answer to music’s digital conversion, providing a little history of the inventions along the way that really revolutionized the game like the creation of mp3 file format and the release of the first iPod. And, while the litigation battles over piracy and peer-to-peer networks are discussed, they thankfully don’t overshadow the entire history as is usually the tendency. But, it’s also important not to overlook the fact that, digital conversion wasn’t everything. The Internet gave people a way to find even hard copy media at a much cheaper price.

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Break On Through: The Runaways


A great rock n’ roll movie is the one that gets the blood coursing in your veins. After watching The Runaways, which released this week, the first thing I wanted to do when I left the theater was jam at full volume.

For those of you too young to remember (or never heard about at all), The Runaways were an all-girl teenage rock band that formed in California in 1975. At a time when rock n’ roll was shifting towards faster tempos and amateurish ease, boys in leather jackets and dirty jeans were learning how easy it was to form a band. Meanwhile, their eager counterparts were encouraged to stay put in a hypocritical paradigm. Like Joan Jett’s guitar teacher (Damone!) explained so bluntly in the movie:  “Girls don’t play electric guitar.”

The hell they don’t. Gender bending was already a staple of rock n’ roll. But if guys like David Bowie and the New York Dolls could prance around onstage in women’s clothes, why couldn’t a bunch of sweaty, angry, bad ass girls plug in and go crazy in front of a stack of amps?

And so the defiant Runaways formed in Hollywood when drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve’s part in the movie) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), having each toyed with the idea of starting an all-girl band, were introduced by Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the sleazy record producer who eventually became the band’s sleazy manager. Fowley was a lot like Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who died of cancer last week) in that The Runaways was a concept band, and the other members — lead guitarist Lita Ford, lead singer Cheri Currie, and a rotating lineup of bassists (due to legal issues, the fictional Robin Robinson represented Jamie Fox) — were recruited more for attitude than ability to play instruments or sing. Although historically labeled “teenage jailbait,” Kim Fowley clarified in the documentary Edgeplay that The Runaways weren’t T & A. These were girls who  just didn’t give a shit (and had no reason to), and they modeled themselves on their rock idols which, aside from Suzie Quatro, were guys.  Bowie, Keith Richards, Gene Simmons, Jeff Beck, and others. And even when Cheri Currie strutted on stage in Japan in a Betty Page corset, she looked ready to dominate, not be dominated.  (Baby-faced Dakota Fanning made it seem more innocent when reenacting this in the film).

And so The Runaways were born. The movie is obviously a limited biopic, which is a shame considering the renewed interest in the band that its likely to generate, especially among young audiences since it’s basically been marketed as That Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning Movie. Because it’s based on Cheri Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, the focus is primarily on the relationship between she, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. But Currie’s career really fizzled out after she left the band, and aside from Joan Jett, guitarist Lita Ford, who teamed up with Sharon and Ozzie Osbourne, achieved some access as a solo artist after The Runaways disbanded.

The Runaways ran the risk of limited release teeny bopper mediocrity, although it surprisingly proved otherwise (and a lot of credit is owed to its leading actors). It’s tricky pulling off a story about a handful of angst-ridden teenage girls in way that doesn’t come off as utterly trite (see Catherine Hardwick’s Thirteen), or drowned in gender politics as it did in say, Lou Adler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (which is probably the closest cinematic kin to The Runaways). While in reality, rock n’ roll was still very much a man’s world in the 70s, The Runaways is just the opposite. Most of the men in the film are either ineffectual (like Steve, the road manager), or utterly vile, like the Currie sisters’ alcoholic father and the band’s manager, Kim Fowley. (Though that’s not to say that even the women in the film can’t disappoint – Currie’s mother was a real flake).

Because it’s a movie based on an American band that formed before the benign (and incredibly boring) Age of Extreme Political Correctness, the movie revisits the grime that’s been lost to recent cultural gentrification. Albeit, it’s a grime of West Coast flavor (rather than say, abysmal New York City in the mid 70s). The Runaways is chock full of dirty clubs, dismal prospects, ambitious sleazebags, absentee parents, booze, drugs, leather, cigarettes, and sex. And to have a handful of angsty teenage girls at the center of this chaotic playground makes it all the more naughty.

The Runaways oozes in ferocious rebellion and blissful sexuality, the very essence of rock n’ roll. Canadian artist/director Floria Sigismondi had the right sensibilities for this kind of material, having come from a background in fashion photography and later, directing music videos for bands like The White Stripes, Interpol, and David Bowie. More than just a band’s tale unfolding in a pristine reconstruction of the 1970s, Sigismondi injects periodic “artsy” display like the ebb and flow of an orchestra – the rich reds and blacks at the height of their decadent fame, stop-and-go action during the big performance scene, the dreamy sequences of excess, and the bleached aftermath. Suddenly the abstract of music has texture, and what better way to reveal rock n’ roll than through a band like The Runaways?


No More Teachers, No More Books: Rock N’ Roll High School


There’s a rumor that, like damn near everything coming out of Hollywood these days, the 1979 comedy, Rock n’ Roll High School, is unfortunately slated for a remake. So far, the details are scant. IMDB has sealed the information to public — at least those that don’t have Pro subscriptions — but, Wiki contributors reported that Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted fame) was tapped to write the screenplay for Howard Stern’s production company. The original film was initially conceptualized as a vehicle for Todd Rundgren, and later Cheap Trick, but ultimately came to hail the halcyonic ethos of slovenly, leather-clad rockers, The Ramones. You know, that teachers and principals suck, that classes are a waste of time, and they’d rather be cruising for chicks in muscles cars, as the lyrics to their title song go.  (Dee Dee Ramone once remarked how he hated the film because The Ramones looked like simpletons).  It’s like a demented Fast Times at Ridgemont High in that it’s silly and trashy and made on producer Roger Corman’s notoriously stingy budget. In other words, it’s pure fun.

The movie takes place at Vince Lombardi High, where the horrible, uber-strict new principal, Evelyn Togar, has declared war on rock n’ roll, which she blames for her students’ utter disregard for education and discipline, driving previous principals to nervous breakdowns. Cult movie queen, Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Motorama) was rather ironically cast in the role. She kicked around with Warhol’s Factory when they used to perform nonsense theater onstage with the Velvet Underground in New York City a few years before The Ramones broke out there (read Leggs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s excellent book, Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk).

Nonetheless, the Principal’s reign of terror can only last for so long, and when Principal Togar interferes with Riff Randal’s (P.J. Soles of Halloween and Carrie) chances to see the Ramones in concert and consequently, her opportunity to give them her song “Rock n’ Roll High School,” she enters a contest to get them to come to her school instead. Eventually, the Ramones invade and rile the students’ to a successful, if somewhat oblivious coup. (Ironic still, is Woronov’s part, in that despite the overthrow by teenage rock fanatics, she returns in the forgettable sequel, Rock n’ Roll High School Forever, as the principal).

The high school rock n’ roll rebellion film is dated, which makes it hard to believe there could be a suitable remake. At least if it’s something set on the modern day campus. Characters in today’s films, and especially teenage films, are fairly innocuous, and the “school sucks” credo of those films would undoubtedly be dismissed as being far too politically incorrect, especially given the massive criticisms of the American public education system. Plus, with the disappearance of the original carnations of punk (and that kind of garage rock, which is what the Ramones really were), with overt, simplistic politics, there doesn’t seem to be a comparable band fitting for the part. In other words, who are the Ramones of today? That kind of comical dissatisfaction with school is even absent from rap. It went out when duos like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, and Kidd n’ Play, stopped making songs about ditching class and getting in trouble with their parents. Rock n’ roll got deep and emotional. Rap got hostile and sexual. It’d be difficult to remake Rock n’ Roll High School for the same reason that you couldn’t make movies like Smithereens, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains, Repo Man, and similar early punk-themed movies  anymore… grime and trashiness, even when it’s characters are funny (as the Ramones and the students of Vince Lombardi High School were in 1979), isn’t appealing anymore. Just as our geography has become so massively gentrified and homogenized, so too has our culture.

After seeing what Alex Winter did as co-director and co-writer of the science fiction comedy, Freaked, maybe there shouldn’t be any groaning yet. Winter, borne out of that wariness with mainstream cinema, could do something very interesting with the screenplay, and perhaps it’s even more appropriate that he should be working with Stern, who of course, built his career on being intentionally crude and shocking. Crude, at least, is what Roger Corman’s films embodied.  Though, who knows what stage it’s at, or whether it’s ever really going to lead to the rumored remake. Nonetheless, what is scheduled for a definite 2010 release is Shout Factory’s collection of Roger Corman classics, which will include the original Rock n’ Roll High School.

You can also watch the full movie on YouTube (until, of course, it gets flagged). Click here for part 1.

Cherries or Bombs? The Runaways


Due out this year is The Runaways, a biopic about the bad ass girl band of the 70s that made glam rock legends of bandmates Joan Jett and Lita Ford. The good news is that it’s been a while since any films about rock n’ roll’s rebellious women have surfaced in the mainstream  (could Smithereens have been the last?!). The bad news is that the actresses playing The Runaways — which includes Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning — don’t really seem hardened enough for the part.

Can they do it? You’ll just have to wait till the movie comes out… or until someone spoils it for you.

Youth in Revolt: The Legend of Billie Jean


While  The Legend of Billie Jean hasn’t yet made the transition from obscure VHS to DVD, it looks as though it’s a possibility, thanks to fervent nostalgics that transformed the ballyhooed 1985 teen movie into a cult classic. (Yeardly Smith did record DVD commentary for Sony, who was supposed to have released it by now). Surprisingly, those with a Netflix account, can endure the technological limbo, and add the movie to their Instant Queue.

This film is an odd product for its day, given the kind of movies that once typified the teen genre. Amidst numerous, cheaply produced T & A comedies (Private School, Spring Break, Porky’s, etc.), which indulged the exploits of mindlessly horny adolescents, John Hughes would soon become an 80s icon with sincere portrayals of American youth, both in drama and comedy. Elsewhere, a sub-genre of C-grade films that, seemingly inspired by 1950s pulp fiction, raised paranoia about the urban teenage timebomb (i.e. Class of 1984, Savage Streets, 3:15). Well, somewhere in the middle of all this is The Legend of Billie Jean. The B-grade action-drama (which includes a tasty foot chase!) isn’t set in the halls of the All-American high school, the comfort of Middle-class America, or even the grimy streets of the inner city, but more unusually, was filmed in and around the coastal Texas city of Corpus Christi.

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Rock n’ Roll in the Rising Sun: Tokyo Pop


Tokyo Pop is probably an unrecognized film title to all but a handful of people, most of whom are likely rabid 80s film fans. And without the transition to the more readily accessible DVD, it remains not a great film (pacing tends to be a problem), but still an overlooked, low-budget gem in the grand universe of obscure cult films.

Centering on young and naive aspiring American and Japanese musicians, Tokyo Pop contrasts the mid-80s new wave, punk and rock influences of urban Japan with the backdrop of idyllic tradition and historical roots; an obvious criticism of commercial globalization and the “Americanization” of a once-distinct Eastern identity. Rock, pop, punk and new wave (check out an early performance of “Rauken Rauken” by Japanese goof-girl rockers, Papaya Paranoia) – it’s all image and personality. Like the old photos of youth in 1980s post-Communist countries: a carefully manufactured young “cool”.

There are essentially two leading characters who, by fate (and the script!), cross paths. Carrie Hamilton, the late daughter of comedienne Carol Burnette (she may be more recognized as one of the instigating rivals in Shag), shares the lead as Wendy Reed, a struggling singer with no hope for security and mobility in the New York City dives scene. Inspired by a postcard of a friend who boasts of success in the business following a move to Tokyo, Wendy packs up her sparing belongs and decides to join her friend. Except things don’t go as plan. Stunned not so much by culture shock, but news of her friend having already moved someplace else, she sticks it out. And, on the advice of fellow nomadic gaijins (the romanticized gringo: Americans) she,  takes up residency in a group house plastered with Disney memorabilia and, in the closest thing to paying singer she could quickly find, entertains drunken entourages of Japanese businessmen in a karaoke bar with half-hearted renditions of corny American folk songs.

Stranded in the city one night, Wendy meets Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro, the vocalist for the Red Warriors who is probably better recognized as the director of the whiskey commercial in Lost in Translation), another young, aspiring rock musician. Obsessed with American and British pop culture, especially the musical legends like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, this is basically the bulk of the limited English he can communicate to Wendy. His family is the same – in one scene, his grandfather, in traditional garb, scowls at his daughter who is attempting to follow the jazzercise routines she’s watching on television as they sit around the dinner table with Hiro and his sister. A big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken crowds the table and Hiro’s mother is ironically bewildered that her son isn’t interested in more “Japanese” things. Even Hiro’s father, a divorcee (taboo no more!) specializes in the 80s novelty of synthetic food sculptures.

Hiro and Wendy’s first encounter is eventually miffed by a misunderstanding over the sharing of a hotel room, but eventually the two hit it off, much to the delight of Hiro’s band, a rock quartet, who want the newfound blond gaijin to be in their band, certain that this is just the gimmick they need to get recognized by the country’s most famous producer, since sneaking trying to sneak him demo tapes hasn’t worked. Reluctant at first, Wendy seems unable to find any other band to meaningfully support a singing career (X of Japan briefly appear in their massive coifs, and delegate Wendy, the new band mate for about a second, the back up singer’s tambourine).

Hiro’s band is basically a cover band, churning out live performances of corny American pop songs like Three Dog Night’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” Amazingly, they do achieve major public recognition, but only through some trivial event – a photographer happened to capture a backstage spat between Wendy and someone else. Suddenly, the cover band is topping the country’s charts. And yet, both Wendy and Hiro, at the helm of  a thriving gimmick band, aren’t entirely happy with the expected definition of “success” (money and fame). In private, Hiro has performed for Wendy the songs he has written, which he sings in Japanese. Completely absent of the Western manufacture, the songs are sincere. Wendy, willing to walk away in order to get Hiro and his bandmates to abandon the gimmick, encourages Hiro to perform these songs for his audiences. In other words: art for the sake of art.

Released in 1988 and yet to be re-released, the film was co-written and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, though her 1992 directorial effort is more widely known: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tokyo Pop was a lot like the 1987 culture-clash dramedy, Living on Tokyo Time. Unfortuantely, there’s little net-recorded history on the movie, other than (surprisingly) a 2007 New York Times Review.

Imagine That! Rumors of a Mighty Boosh Movie


Okay dear anglophiles… yes, the Muvika! blog is reserved for posts about movies. But, rumors of The Mighty Boosh finally making it to the big screen in the next two years, gives license to discuss the television show here… even if the status of the movie at this point is unclear to the point of making it little more than a vague rumor.

It’s not just any show, which is why I’ll take this stretch of liberty. The Mighty Boosh is one of the funniest and most original British sitcoms in the BBC catalog in at least the last five years. And, that’s a tough claim to attempt to defend, considering that the competition these days include the wonderfully written League of Gentlemen, Spaced, Black Books, Peep Show, the inter-related Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place and IT Crowd, and even the redundant sketch comedy of Little Britain and Catherine Tate.  But, while every one of these shows (and others I haven’t mentioned) puts nearly every bit of American sitcoms of the last decade to utter shame–except for the intermittent genius in shows like Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock–few have attained more than cult status among American television consumers (unless introduced to wider audiences redressed as a tame American version of its more daring British source). These are the brilliant secrets that, until they ever achieve that transition into a region code suitable for DVD players in the United States, must often be enjoyed in fragmented bootlegs. To that I’ll say thank goodness for YouTube… but, damn the copyright police!

At least in the realm of network television, BBC offerings expose the limitations of American sitcoms. The BBC sitcoms aren’t “daring” just because the British allow fewer restrictions on language and sexual content. But that most American sitcoms, bound by the hollow FCC restrictions on language, indulge sexual innuendo to an overly compensatory extreme.  Maybe a writer for American television can get away with slipping in the words “dog penis” more than twice, but this is basically what has come to embody the definition of “risque.” Despite the supposed history of more daring content in American television in the last twenty or thirty years (especially anything with Bea Arthur attached), the bulk of American sitcoms today are predictable and watered down, an observation was recently made in an episode of 30 Rock. (Imagine being subject to hours of episodes of The Big Bang Theory). By contrast, the BBC has nurtured shows that experimented with the traditional notions of sitcom construction. League of Gentlemen completely destroyed the paradigm in terms of consistency of characters throughout the life of a series, and, along with Little Britain and Catherine Tate dedicated a significant part of the budget to costume and effects. Even the more familiar Extras, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant following the success of their previous sitcom, The Office, offered criticism of its own industry’s obsession with celebrity and spectacle–albeit in a sort of defeatist soapbox manner.

The brilliance of modern British sitcom has been injected into the American lineup in another form: Americanized versions. The most obvious example is The Office, although in Americanizing the show, the emphasis has shifted to its comedic ploy of heightened awareness and awkward situations taken to an extreme, while omitting the social and political commentary regarding the drudgery of the office life. HBO recently bought the BBC comedy Little Britain, pumping money into the show and now having it filmed live on location. Most recently,  NBC was to have an American version of The IT Crowd, but thankfully the project was scrapped before a pilot even aired, although the Independent Film Channel (IFC) had talked about picking up the project. And in November of 2008, MTV2 discussed the development of  a Boosh spin-off.

The Mighty Boosh originated from the stand-up performances of Noel Felding and Julian Barratt. Before the irreverent adventures of the Zooniverse aired on television for three series (British sitcoms typically run shorter terms than do American ones and are referred to as “series” rather than “seasons”) beginning in 2004, it was performed as a live stage show (and still is, touring in festivals in Europe), and later, as a BBC radio program. Described as a surrealist comedy and increasingly more so as it reached a third series, the show was something obviously targeted for younger, hipper audiences. Most of the episodes retained that theatrical look to it, especially in fantasy scenes which depended more on costume, color and lighting for effect.

More accurately, The Mighty Boosh is a surreal musical comedy. Like Cheech & Chong did in their stand-up and later, in their movies, the Boosh cast (and primarily, Barratt and Felding) wrote and performed an array of hilarious and relevant new wave tracks to highlight their situations, with the duo establishing a trademark for crimping.

At least for American viewers not really yet exposed to revolutions occurring in British sitcoms, this violated the assumption of most British sitcoms being very dated and mildly funny shows surrounding proper English folk, something influenced by the handful of shows like Are You Being Served and Keeping Up Appearances which continue to run on PBS, the poor Yanks outlet of the cultural products (outside of films) coming from the Motherland.

BBC’s uniqueness, too, is the luxury of situational comedy whereas the American sitcom settings tend to be very limiting, centering around the interactions and relationships of family and close-knit friends, the primary setting typically being someone’s home. Originally, The Mighty Boosh took place in a zoo (the Zooniverse) where the ambitious traditionalist, Howard Moon (Barratt) and his charmingly dim-witted Mod friend, Vince Noir (Felding) worked as zoo keepers. And it was usually Howard envisioning himself the revered hero of every occasion that got them both in trouble. Secondary characters include Dixon Bainbridge (originally the IT Crowd‘s Richard Ayoade), Bob Fossil, the wry shaman Naboo (played by Noel’s brother Michael, who was the inspiration for the show’s name), his faithful gorilla companion, Bollo, and the Hitcher, a regular, rhyming semi-nemesis. As the series aged, the setting changed to Howard and Vince sharing a flat with Naboo and Bollo in second season, and then, steered into the really surreal with Howard and Vince working in Naboo’s second-hand shop.

BBC Films has expressed their interest in producing a Boosh movie, but there has never been a firm date set because the order of projects for the Boosh team at this point is unclear. They intend to tour the live stage show (which has been solidly booked in venues around Eastern Europe for the last few months), but afterwards, expect to take a break and then resume with either a fourt series or the film. Whatever the next move, nothing is likely to be ready by 2010. Get started catching up on the episodes, my fellow Americans.

*Thanks to J. Rushton & Co. for introducing me to the show.