Friday, February 12, 2010

What will be stuck in your head for the next two weeks

Time for the Winter Olympics! I love the Olympics in general and the winter games in particular. Perhaps this is because the closely-spaced winter Olympics in 1992 and 1994 occurred for me at that age when your brain's connections are really forming, locking in associations and memories,* or because, to be honest, I was watching a hell of a lot of tv at that age, and saw much of these games. I also have the Minnesotan, growing-up-playing-in-the-snow thing contributing.

Anyway, if you're like me, you're going to be walking around with Olympic music stuck in your head for the duration. Back in the early 90s, I made a copy of a tape someone in my family (either my aunt or grandparents) had of music by film composer John Williams, performed by the Boston Pops under the composer's direction. I was already a fan of Williams' music for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, and knew his Superman theme. But listening to this tape, I learned about Williams' long collaboration with Steven Spielberg and the non-movie music he composed, including the first cut, the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme":

Williams composed this theme for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It has become one of the most well-known themes for the Olympic Games in the US. As it turns out, NBC has an exclusive license to use Williams' music in their broadcasts. So when CBS covered the games in '92 & '94, this music was not used. Williams has had a long association with NBC: he also composed the "Mission" Theme for their nightly news.

At some point Williams re-arranged his 1984 theme as a medley beginning "Bugler's Dream" theme from a 1958 suite of sports music by Leo Arnaud. This has become the most prominent cut used among NBC's musical selections during recent Olympics. Arnaud's piece alone has apparently also been used by ABC when they've had the games.

Williams has composed a few other pieces of Olympic music, used to varying extents by NBC. First is "The Olympic Spirit," comissioned by NBC Sports for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. This is a sentimental favorite of mine from when I was in a brass quintet in high school and we played a fun arrangement of it. Here's the orchestral version:

When the Olympics returned to the US in 1996, it was time for another Williams theme. This one was called "Summon the Heroes," and has continued to be all over NBC's coverage:

I picked up the 1996 Olympics CD even before the games started, and listened to it during a college-shopping road trip with my family while they were going on. That coming school year I was to be the drum major of my school's marching band, and I ended up ordering the marching band arrangement of this piece and splicing it together with some of the other Olympic themes we had in the music stacks for our homecoming halftime show.

Williams composed one more Olympic theme, this one for the 2002 Salt Lake City winter games. It's called "Call of the Champions," and I can't say I'm familiar with it. If NBC uses it for their broadcasts, it's not in an extensive manner:

In 2006 during the Torino games, I noticed that NBC was frequently using one particular piece that I recognized, and remembered liking, but couldn't quite put my finger on. Then it came back in a flash of SIRE (sudden instant recall effect) -- it was the theme from the early-mid-90s FOX Bruce Campbell vehicle, the sci-fi/comedy western, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. The theme, by composer Randy Edelman, fits quite well with Williams' music, and has apparently also been used by NBC for the World Series and MLB All-Star Game when they carry those. I should note that the recording and arrangement of the NBC version are a little less cheesy than the one used in the original series' opening titles:

Finally, there will undoubtedly be at least one overplayed commercial during the Olympic broadcasts that you will have stuck in your head for some time. For me two years ago during the Summer Olympics, it was some local ad for a furniture or mattress store featuring a classic rock sound-alike. Can't remember what song it was imitating, or the store (unfortunately?). In any case, the repeated music is unlikely to be as good as the earworm of the 2006 crop, "Galvanize" by the Chemical Brothers featuring Q-tip, which was in Budweiser Select ads and quickly made it into that year's Beukemix:

*I remember hearing somewhere that there's a theory that because of the timing of neural connections, you are likely to maintain a lifelong affection for the music of your early teens, even if you later decide it was terrible music. Three words: "Informer" by Snow

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Beatles + Charts = an ideal post for this blog

The Charting the Beatles project is a work in progress. They've put up samples of a handful of charts visually quantifying aspects of the Beatles' career. Coming just months after the release of The Beatles: Rock Band and the remastered albums, this is catnip for a nerdy Beatles fan.

The examples include:
  • a circular time line showing the band's working schedules over the years 1963-1966, remarkable for how packed your planner has to be in order to be a prolific superstar group
  • a set of charts showing the breakdown of musical keys on each album, which makes me wish I had gone farther in my music theory so it would mean a bit more to me
  • a chart of references to Beatles songs within other Beatles songs (sampled above) - I've seen similar graphs for intra-Biblical references
  • a set of bar charts breaking down authorship and collaboration in songwriting
I really like this last one for helping to get a handle on the Beatles' output. Unlike the Who, the Beatles had the good sense to grow to hate each other and never really reunite, and they left a rich but compact discography that fits on a poster: 186 songs recorded in the studio in 9 calendar years (just over 7 years of time elapsed).

I'm a little confused by how some of the collaborations and outside contributions are defined. These aren't the songwriting credits as published, otherwise most would be shown as 50-50 Lennon/McCartney. These are based on anecdotes, apparently mostly collected in one particular book. I'd like to note that the Wikipedia entries for each individual Beatles song are full of all kinds of interesting trivia about their writing. The Beatles material on that site is generally very detailed and seemingly well-sourced.

In the chart, contribution of an instrumental solo seems not to count toward the bars, or all four Beatles would be credited on The End, where here only Paul is. Similarly, Eric Clapton isn't credited for While My Guitar Gently Weeps. And Billy Preston's presence in the sessions for Let It Be and Abbey Road don't count, either. So, what do the handful of outside contributions indicate? Based on the pink in Golden Slumbers, I wondered if it was George Martin's composition/orchestration. But if that were the case, there would be some collaboration indicated for Eleanor Rigby, which, of course, is set just to a string octet composed and arranged by Martin.* Maybe the collaboration on Slumbers has to do with the old lullaby from which McCartney used some lines. But then, there are other songs that had that kind of inspirational origin. So I feel like maybe this poster needs some splainin'. Or at least some annotatin'.

The other feature of this particular poster is the measure of collaboration, represented by a red thermometer bar above each. No bar means a solo effort. Full bar means roughly equal participation by all Beatles. I do not understand how the scale works on these. If, like on She Loves You, there is equal partnership between Lennon & McCartney (which was fairly rare, especially after 1963), it seems to rate about 33% on the Collab-O-Meter(TM). Instinctively, I would expect this to rate 50%, since half the band is collaborating. Or, hang on, I get it: the primary songwriter is collaborating with 1/3 of the remaining available Beatles, and using this Beatle to his full potential on the project. So think of the Collab-O-Meter as "how willing was the main songwriter to let someone else in on it." That makes more sense.

Note that there were only two studio recordings for their main discography that had full songwriting participation from all. I would classify both as throwaways of a sort: the instrumental Flying, from Magical Mystery Tour, and the fade-in-fade-out jam Dig It, from Let It Be, which was literally clipped out of a longer session of effing around in Abbey Road Studio. This chart illustrates how truly Balkanized the Beatles were, especially as their careers progressed.

I look forward to more work from the Beatles Charters. I'll post it here as soon as I'm aware of it.

* Let me repeat that, since it is easily glossed over: the most popular rock & roll band in the world released, as a single, a song setting for vocalist with string octet. There are reasons that my ex-roommate Dan Hetzel refers to them as "the baddest mofos on the planet." Consider that the same Beatle who wrote that song also wrote songs like When I'm Sixty Four or Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da that even his nominal writing partner derided as "granny music," as well as Helter Skelter, just about the heaviest mainstream metal until Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath hit their stride shortly thereafter.
Hetz is also fond of describing Paul McCartney having developed (earned?) laser vision at the time he wrote Paperback Writer. He damaged his laser vision by writing Fool On The Hill, and it finally went away when he wrote The Long and Winding Road. He was no longer infallible.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Maxwell Edison sure plays a mean pinball

I missed the Who's halftime performance last night, as I was in transit, but I hear it was dreadful, even for people who like the Who. Sadly, this sort of halftime choice seems to be the norm: the last time there were halftime performers less than two decades out from their prime, they plum ruined it for everybody. Since 2004, we've had, in order, McCartney, The Stones, Tom Petty, Prince, Springsteen, and the Who. In fairness, I should note that I rather enjoyed Prince and Springsteen's shows, and neither could be accused of phoning it in. Especially not Springsteen and his bathing suit area.

Anyway, this brings up an idea I had after the passing of Who bassist John Entwistle in 2002. Consider the longtime lineup of the Who:

The Who, 1964-1978
Pete Townshend - lead guitar
Roger Daltrey - lead vocals
John Entwistle - bass, deceased, 2002
Keith Moon - drums, deceased, 1978

Now if only there were a spare British bassist and drummer lying around. Aha, found some.

The Beatles, 1962-1969
John Lennon - rhythm guitar, deceased, 1980
George Harrison - lead guitar, deceased, 2001
Paul McCartney - bass
Ringo Starr - drums

I know that it is much more than a hunch that this group must somehow form a family. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Whotles:

The Whotles, 2010-?
Pete Townshend - lead guitar, self-incriminating research
Roger Daltrey - lead vocals, shirtless fringe vest wearing
Paul McCartney - bass, no-longer-futuristic tape loops
Ringo Starr - drums, allocated one solo per life of band

I've always said that the Whotles would only cover Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, Ringo's not half the drummer John Bonham was, or Keith Moon for that matter, so they can't do Zeppelin or most of The Who's songs, and Daltrey is no Lennon, so let's go with The Kinks. The Whotles will only play Kinks songs.

Update: Publish or perish. I see others have long since beaten me to putting this idea online.