Fragmented Frequencies May 2013

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Russ Tyson was an icon of Queensland radio. He joined the ABC at 19, where he became the star of the much loved breakfast show the Hospital Half Hour. He went on to commercial radio, and when national TV hit Brisbane Russ was the first person to appear live on the telecast, becoming a regular on QTV9. But that’s not what makes him so special. Russ, you see was a philosopher, and the author of many books of his homespun old school salt of the earth philosophy. But it’s his spoken word albums where the gold lies. Perhaps the years in front of the microphone convinced Russ that his perspective had a lot to offer the world.

And he was right, just not in the way that he thought. Russ Tyson’s Philosophy Album, which features a huge advertisement for Queensland Permanent Building Society on the back cover and doesn’t appear to be released on any specific record label, gathers together some excerpts from his philosophy books. Russ reads his homespun edicts over some gentle, vaguely psychedelic music that despite the presence of the Moog, sounds much more like shopping centre muzak  than Switched On Russ.  It was composed by his son, whose rock band would later tour the UK with Status Quo.

Russ answers all the tough questions. What is a boy? What is a girl? What is cricket? He even offers a Recipe For Preserving Children. At times he is patronising, “A girl is a unique and fortunate occurrence in nature like diamonds,” he suggests on What Is A Girl, whilst his simple, reassuringly cliched 70’s sexism, in which people are reduced to caricatures, occasionally offer some peculiarly enjoyable and utterly offensive gold.

“A man is a creature of superlative intelligence,” he begins on How To Tell A Man From A Woman. “A woman is a rattlebrain who can’t use a slide rule or manage a map,” he offers later, before suggesting that despite man being brave strong and fearless, its his utter helplessness in changing nappies, understanding domestic chores and remembering romantic things about his wife that gives a woman her reason for being.

It’s probably not fair to retrospectively poke fun at Russ. After all he was a product of his times and these times have been a changing considerably in the intervening four decades. He’s also 93 now and living the good life on the Gold Coast with his rattlebrain.

During Russ’ time however, the market was broader, and there was room for a greater diversity of albums to be released. And spoken word, or white middle aged radio announcers celebrating their creativity with sexist and cliché ridden homespun hokum became a popular genre. One Day At A Time (EMS Records) makes Russ Tyson’s Philosophy Album seem like a Martin Luther King speech.  The highlights are the seven tracks written by Tyson. The remainder are dire, penned by David Gibb, who offers in the liner notes, “each day has a special moment. These are some of them.” If these are his special moments you’d hate to experience his tedious bone constricting inane moments. With lame poetry and discussion on mother’s day and how to respond to the words “Daddy I’m bored,” this is some of the most insipid banality ever put to vinyl.  Not bad enough to be good, and just bland enough to be terrifying. That’s despite the upbeat game show presenter style narration from Bob Francis.

The godfather of this questionable movement is a man with the golden microphone and loose morals. Mr John ‘cash for comment’ Laws.  Laws has a marvelous turn of phrase. Aside from dropping pearlers like ‘rape bait’ and asking a sexual abuse victim if it was in any way their fault, on his popular Sydney radio show, he has also released a gaggle of trucking albums and published earnest knockabout poetry. It’s the poet in Laws that caught the attention of soundtrack composer Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther), and the two of them collaborated on 1977’s Just You and Me Together Love (RCA).  Law’s poetry is dark and hard-bitten, nostalgic and raw; it’s the life of a swinging truck driving stud who isn’t afraid to feel. It’s turgid, faintly misogynist stuff, Mancini’s orchestration is uncharacteristically limp and Laws’ word plays of a bold adventurer with a sensitive side are almost intolerable as he discusses his memories “of nameless women in cheap rooms.”

Fragmented Frequencies July 2012

If you regularly brave the dust and despair, trawling through op shop record crates you’d be more than familiar with a smiling man bearing an optimistic comb over. If you move beyond the grinning facade you’ll find unremarkable muzak versions of popular film themes. The man is Henry Mancini and the LP you’re holding both secured his success and constrained his development.

His own music is iconic, tunes like Baby Elephant Walk, Peter Gun, The Pink Panther Theme, and Moon River. Short of Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Good the Bad and The Ugly, or John Williams’ Jaws or Star Wars, Henry Mancini is responsible for many of the best known sounds in the history of film music. His ability to combine a light orchestral score, with a compelling melody and a cool West Coast jazz feel – often with a pop vocal, had him pegged in the 1960’s as an easy and popular choice for filmmakers and the public. To some extent his popularity as one of the first superstars of film music has retrospectively worked against him, with history remembering his lighter more commercial fare, not helped by the numerous aforementioned op shops littered with his cheesy orchestral muzak.

Yet in recent years artists like John Zorn via his Naked City project (Covering A Shot in the Dark) and Mike Patton via Fantomas (Covering Charade) or even Patton’s score for a Perfect Place which owes a huge debt to Mancini, have demonstrated the composer’s legacy upon this generation’s more forward thinking composers.

Mancini enjoyed success early suggests John Caps in his biography, Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music  (University of Illinois Press/Footprint), landing at Universal Studios in 1952 as part of a factory of composers. Yet in 6 short years he would be scoring Orson Welles incredible though mercilessly butchered Mexican noir Touch of Evil, and The Glen Miller Story, which is ironic as after the war Miller ignored him when forming his band, yet for this score Mancini won his first Academy award.

Mancini’s breakthrough came through Blake Edwards’ TV show Peter Gunn, beginning a relationship that would continue until his death. In fact it was Mancini’s subsequent scores in the early 60’s, such as Pink Panther and it’s sequel A Shot in the Dark with bright sophisticated jazz scores and a cheeky swinging feel that cemented his reputation. At this time new HiFi record players exploded in lounge rooms across the US, and the public wanting uber cool sophisticated styles, in short they wanted Mancini. His film scores, often with at least a couple of light poppy vocal numbers became huge sellers, bringing further attention to the film.

Desperate to move beyond being ‘that sophisticated jazz guy,’ into more narrative based scoring, and utilise the styles he’d learnt at Universal, Caps uncovers a brief ‘experimental period in the 70’s, when Mancini and Blake Edwards fell out for a decade. Phillip Kaufman’s White Dawn, a Scandinavian thriller called The Night Visitor and Vittorio De Sica’s Sunflower all offered opportunities to play with ethnic styles, darker themes and, avant garde dissonance. Yet ultimately when serious directors requested his services, like De Sica or Hitchcock, who hired him for Frenzy, he was inevitably walking into a battleground between directors and producers. He may have wanted to challenge and stretch himself, yet financial pressures had the money men (and often the director desperate for a hit) wanting something, safe, melodic and Mancini. As a result his Frenzy score was rejected by Hitchcock as too Bernard Herrman.

It’s always the pop stars lament to be taken seriously, yet Caps demonstrates that Mancini had the talent to do so much more, never really grasping the opportunity, and by the early 80’s when former protégé’s like John Williams was helming big symphonic score like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark it was all too late.

Whilst broadly detailing Mancini’s family life, Caps focuses squarely in his scores, analysing and discussing them in detail with a rare candour, offering a portrait of a man for whom the music flowed easily, yet to some extent became a prisoner of his own success.

Fragmented Frequencies Nov 2010 (b)

The first LP that Fragmented Frequencies ever purchased with his own piggy bank savings was Footy Favourites (1981 on wait for it, Studio One). It’s a devastating collection of tunes like Danny Boy and Macho Man being murdered by the footy heroes of the day. Surprisingly Mark Maclure’s take on Lennon’s Imagine isn’t that bad but Tim Watson sounds like someone’s juggling his testicles with a cheese grater, pitching all over Kenny Rogers classic Ruby (don’t take your love to town) with the emotion of, well an impotent newsreader. In a world before autotune this album is nothing short of classic. Particularly if you think bad karaoke is classic.

But more than just a nostalgic trip into 80’s football culture, reliving this album now makes you realise that there are a lot of truly terrible albums out there. Music so bad it’s bad. Music without redeeming features. Music where you’re in too much pain to find some kind of patronising cynical humour in their earnest attempts at art.

“It’s hard to talk in a world with nothing to say,” offers John Laws on Just You and Me Together Love (RCA 1977). Of course it didn’t stop him for one second in indulging us with his delicate poetry, that of a swinging truck driving stud deep in love, over Henry Mancini’s uncharacteristically bland orchestrations. It was hard to choose between this and You’ve Never Been Trucked Like This Before (RCA 1976), where on the cover Laws, standing in front of a truck is simultaneously being served a Jack Daniels, having his shoe shined and staring down the cleavage of three hot chicks. Ultimately however his turgid, faintly misogynist wordplays of a bold adventurer with a sensitive side win out as he discusses his “thoughts of nameless women in cheap rooms.”

The 80’s were a devastating decade for many, Neil Young’s awful awful attempt at rockabilly Everybody’s Rocking only escaped this list by the width of his pink tie. Instead Lou Reed’s unbelievably lame Growing Up in Public (Arista 1980) gets a guernsey. “I don’t care if you pick my head as long as we end up in bed,” he offers at one point and when the next song begins with him repeating “Love is here, here to stay,” you’re ready to stab your record player. Apparently a year later he would clean up from his well documented drug and alcohol problems. Drug addicts talk of needing to hit rock bottom before being able to change. This is rock bottom. Then it bottoms out again. Each song is progressively worse. This album is an intervention.

The Switched On series has a certain kitsch charm. Wendy Carlos’ 1968 Switched on Bach, is of course a classic of Moog synthesizer virtuosity. The brand has been progressively weakened through Burt Bacharach and Beatles cover albums, even a Country Music outing, but they hit a new low with 1977’s Switched on Christmas. The Moog has disappeared and Santa is on the cover happily shooting lasers out of his hands. The christmas carols are of course a kind of disco easy listening muzak. Funky soulless and unbelievably bad. The demented Chipmunk funk and schmaltz of Santa Claus is Coming to Town is a dead set classic. Particularly if you’ve never heard music before.

You know when you watch those movies from the 80’s and there’s this uplifting moment, the beat kicks in, a bit of sax and then someone wails some kind of earnest fist in the air song about touching a fire or escaping the darkness, totally ruining the moment. Well imagine if it was sung by perky precocious kids in bright clothes. Then imagine if the songs were all about Jesus. Prism Yellow (1987 Reunion) is not as good as it sounds.

Colette, Samantha Fox, Craig McLachlan and Check 1-2, Jason Donavon, Bruce Willis, Eddie Murphy, even Jacko aint gonna make it to this list. Even at their worst at least there’s some spirit in their music. Christmas with Your Neighbours: 20 All-Time Christmas Favourites (1989 EMI) however takes it to a whole new level. Voices are totally indistinguishable. Sure your favourite Neighbours like Paul and Harold and the rest of the gang are here but they’re all mashed together, so for all you know it’s the Korean Orphans Choir. It’s so bland it’s almost over the top. Hark the Herald Angels sing makes you feel like trapped in time before morphing into the Twelve Days of Christmas which sounds more like the 12,044 years of christmas. This is what you’re forced to listen to if you’ve misbehaved in hell.