It’s nothing all that unusual these days to run across people who celebrate the music in Bollywood films. And I don’t mean just the people of India. In the past decade, there has been a small but steady flow of Bollywood film music compilations packed with fantastic funk, go-go, disco, and even the occasional traditional number. Even people who don’t follow Bollywood can probably drop RD Burman’s name, though they’ll likely call him “that guy from Slumdog Millionaire.” But there is another world, one populated not by Asha Bhosle or any sense of respectability. The Bollywood b-grade horror film is where we like to play, and it’s about time someone celebrated the music from those fantastically terrible movies full of rubber fright masks.
The older Pakistani films that I’ve watched have struck me as being at once both primitive and forward-looking. (And I must add that the Pakistani films I’ve watched might not be representative of the country’s cinematic output as a whole.) Though technically crude, these films use the type of stuttering editing rhythms and fragmented visuals that wouldn’t come into vogue in the West for years –- and then only to be criticized for displaying the influence of MTV. As the first volume of The Sound of Wonder demonstrates, Pakistani film music from that same period likewise had one foot in the future — often with the other foot inhabiting territory no less strange to the unaccustomed ear.
Under normal circumstances, I consider turning to a discussion of the weather to be a sign that conversation has failed. There are exceptions of course, for extreme circumstances, but by and large if you are making small talk about the weather with someone then it’s bets to cut your losses and move on. Perhaps study up on a few more interesting topics for your next chance encounter. I also generally try to avoid putting a specific time stamp on the date on which something was written for Teleport City, as it rarely makes sense years or even weeks removed from that date. However, today in New York City it is almost twenty degrees. So to warm up, not only am I indulging in this brief time-stamped discussion of the weather, but I thought it was an appropriate day to prepare ourselves for breezy summer holidays. Now, whether you are driving along the Amalfi Coast in a Ferrari Daytona, hopping a jetliner to Monaco, or setting out to map a hitherto unexplored tributary of the Amazon River equipped with nothing but a machete, everyone knows the single most important thing to prepare before departure is your soundtrack. So we offer up to you some suggestions that blend both vintage and modern interpretations of music that will prepare you for whatever may occupy you during your warmer days.
“My dear girl there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” — James Bond, Goldfinger
When you think spies, chances are you think of James Bond. Unless, that is, you happen to be looking at deported Russian spy Anna Chapman’s photo spread for the Russian edition of Maxim (there’s a 99% chance that any article about these photos will be titled “The Cold War Heats Up”). There are plenty of elements that go into making and so have become defining factors of the Bond films. The clothes, the cars, the exotic locations, the women, the booze — and of course, the music.
“This was no disciplined march; it was a stampede–a stampede gigantic and terrible–without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.” — HG Wells, The War of the Worlds
My parents were always willing to indulge my state as kind of a weird kid. One year for Christmas, they got me an LP with which I would become obsessed as a kid, and one that continues to find it’s way into my playlist. It was a bizarre amalgamation of rock opera and old time radio play, featuring the voice talent of none less than Richard Burton: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. It was an impressive package for a young lad to receive, with artwork that spanned the entirety of the gatefold cover and a full-color booklet of more artwork and the story of how the record came to be. The War of the Worlds was, at the time, one of my all-time favorite books, or as all-time as you can have at the age of eight or nine. It was one of the first novels I read, along with Dracula and Frankenstein and probably something involving Encyclopedia Brown or someone. While those around me devoured the sorts of books one expects elementary school children to read, I reveled in the utter decimation of my planet, the desperation of mankind on the brink of extinction. I watched producer George Pal’s War of the Worlds film adaptation, and while I loved the movie, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the same as the book I’d grown to so adore. Similarly, I used my grass cutting money to buy a copy of the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast of the story on cassette. Again, though, while it was great, it wasn’t my War of the Worlds — in that it wasn’t really HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Our good friend and fellow MOSS agent David Foster at Permission to Kill asked me to write about five of my favorite movie soundtracks. I decided for my Liner Notes to pick five soundtracks that seem to clash entirely with the movie they accompany, and yet work perfectly.
France Gall might not have had the sophisticated mystique of Francoise Hardy, the it girl “oomph” of Sylvie Vartan, or the continental sensuality of Bardot, but she was nonetheless an integral part of the Yeh Yeh Girl pantheon. It could even be said that her young age — 15 at the time of signing her first recording contract — made her the most accurate reflection of that uniquely French musical movement’s teeny bopper audience. As such, she presented a guileless naiveté that perhaps made her an ideal blank slate upon which some of France’s best professional songwriters could project their pop fantasies — the most well known of those being Gall “family friend” Serge Gainsbourg. Because, really, who better to entrust your teenage daughter’s fortunes to than Serge Gainsbourg?
Writing about Northern Soul as a genre defies some of the easy shorthand that a part time music critic and admitted hack like myself might otherwise reach for. And by that I mean that, despite its name, it is a musical movement defined not by how and where the music was created and played — as opposed to, for instance, “Philly Soul”, or “Delta Blues” — but by how and where it was consumed and curated. In my case, learning that it was, in fact, a British musical movement based around overlooked American soul records — and hence an antecedent to contemporary DJ and “crate digger” culture — was one of those “a-ha” moments that sees something perceived only dimly from the periphery of experience suddenly come sharply into focus. Aiding that focus was Charly Records’ just released double disc Up All Night!: 56 Northern Soul Classics, which not only provides an expansive musical overview of the scene, but also stands as a testament to its enduring appeal. The set combines two seminal Northern Soul compilations first released by Charly on vinyl in the early 90s and again on disc a few years later. In the reissue process, the label this time around also saw fit to include a brief but informative set of liner notes from veteran music journalist Bob Fisher and a generous helping of bonus tracks that include some of the best tunes on the comp overall.
I suspect that the appeal of these female-centric compilations of vintage international pop is due no less to the power of the female voice to both soothe and inflame than it is to the longstanding function of the female form as an era defining marker of style. Perhaps few better illustrations of this can be found than the image that emblazons the cover of German label Grosse Freiheit’s Funky Frauleins series: that of a long haired, lithe, and blissed-out looking blond whose naked body has been turned into one big psychedelic canvas. It’s a single picture that evokes a very specific cultural moment as easily as any painstakingly assembled collage ever could, and has the added value of tantalizing us with promises of sex and countercultural transgression.
However, as its subtitle — “Female beat, groove, funk in Germany 1968-1981” – implies, the second volume of Funky Frauleins casts a much wider net, both in terms of style and timeframe, than either its predecessor or other similar compilations dealing with the bygone pop sirens of, for instance, Japan and France. And the potential for disjunction that creates becomes apparent with the album’s very first transition, as we move from the brass-driven, late 60s bubblegum stomp of Ushci Moser’s “Sunny Honey” to the slinky disco groove of Veronika Fischer’s “He, Wir Fahr’n Mit Dem Zug”, which wears its 1977 vintage proudly on its sleeve. Clearly the unifying theme here is, above all else, that the performers are both female and German, which is probably enough for some. But, aside from the fact that the sense of disjointedness eases as the album progresses, for me it still lacked the pleasing overall cohesiveness of recent similar girl pop comps such as Nippon Girls and some of the better French Yeh-Yeh collections.
Another thing that, for me, establishes the listen-ability of these kind of collections is how well they balance kitsch with quality. Of course, what you might consider kitsch on an album like Funky Frauleins depends a lot on what cultural assumptions you bring to it. The stereotypical ideas of rigidity and authoritarian bent that the sound of German inflection might summon for many indeed provide a humorous contrast to the notions of looseness, flow and improvisation that terms like “funk” and “groove” conjure. And, if that’s your mindset, Funky Frauleins will certainly deliver on the yuks. Fasia’s strident vocal on track 3’s “Arbeitslosen – Blues” indeed seems to be trying to shout the groove into submission, while on track 11’s “Superstition”, the raw, bluesy vocal of Inga Rumpf is undermined somewhat by the fussiness with which the arrangement adheres to the Stevie Wonder original. Elsewhere, the stiff enunciation of Caterina Valente, on her English language cover of Peter Paul and Mary’s “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”, might cast some doubt upon just how sincerely she really is “diggin’” that “scene”.
But, elsewhere, Funky Frauleins delivers on the funk enough to pull it back from the brink of being a mere snark fest. Among such cuts are Anne Halgis’s “Fingernails”, whose propulsive energy and jazzy swing manage to outshine some pretty strange English lyrics, and perhaps the album’s highlight, “Can’t Understand”, a track by a pre-Giorgio Moroder Donna Summer — recording under her real name, Donna Gaines –- that’s marked by an insistent, pulsating rhythm and emotional, yet calmly authoritative vocal. Other hard driving highlights include Su Kramer’s deliciously wah-wah inflected “WieBer Sand” and Angelika Mann’s stark “Kutte”. And while these tracks may be overshadowed by the novelty of an entry like Lili Lindfors’ goofy, German language cover of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, they are nonetheless those that provide the collection with its much needed heart and (especially) soul.
Aside from providing grist for adventurists in the pop music realm, Funky Frauleins also has something to offer fans of Euro cinema, as a number of its featured players led a double life in the world of film. Among these are the aforementioned Uschi Moser, a star of light sexploitation fare whose “Sunny Honey” initially appeared in her film Yearning For Love. College Girl Murders starlet Uschi Glas sings the lead on “Mein Wochenende”, a song composed and arranged by the great Peter Thomas, whose many scores include those to the Jerry Cotton Europsy films and the German sci-fi TV series Raumpatrouille Orion. Elsewhere, a sensuous, mildly disco-fied cover of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” is delivered by Hildegard Knef, a respected actress whose many credits include starring in The Murderers Are Among Us, the first production from East Germany’s DEFA Studios.
Overall, Funky Frauleins offered a diverting musical travelogue. But, while I suspect I’ll be consigning a good number of its standout tracks to my iPod, I doubt I’ll be giving the album as a whole a repeat listen anytime soon. Of course, this is probably a negligible distinction in this day and age, and — as much as my use of the term “day and age” — probably dates me considerably. Not all of us are as demanding of tight thematic cohesion when it comes to our albums, or of “albums” at all, come to think of it. More importantly, there are no doubt those among us who are perfectly happy just to hear a bunch of German ladies sing, and, for them, I can’t imagine Funky Frauleins being anything but deeply satisfying.
The title Shadow Music of Thailand evokes ideas of ancient and mysterious folk traditions. A CD with such a title, one might assume, could offer the listener a portal to arcane, culturally insular sounds that were never intended for Western ears. The truth, however, is a wee bit different.
In 1960s Thailand, the term “Shadow Music” was used to refer to current groups whose sound was influenced by the British instrumental combo The Shadows. Originally formed as a backup band for singer Cliff Richards, The Shadows, while never making much of a dent in the U.S. charts, were an international sensation throughout much of the 60s, scoring hits at home and abroad with tunes like “Apache”. Their sound was similar to that of America’s Ventures, consisting of upbeat instrumentals centered around twangy, reverb-drenched guitar melodies.
According to the liner notes to this 2009 disc from Seattle’s Sublime Frequencies label, the main Shadow Music groups — such as the featured P.M. Pocket Music, Johnny Guitar and Jupiter — all had in common the involvement of one man, Thai singer and musical entrepreneur Payong Mukda. What’s interesting about all of them is that, rather than simply emulating The Shadows’ sound, they instead applied it to traditional Thai melodies, rhythms, and occasionally even instrumentation. The result is a unique mix that sees the exotic injected with the familiar, the familiar made less so, and the combined total somehow made more alien to outsider ears than the sum of its parts. Serpentine organ melodies intertwine with percussive guitar leads toward unexpected resolutions. Familiar elements pop up — a drum intro borrowed from the Surfari’s “Wipe Out”, the odd guitar figure reminiscent of early Ska — only to be swallowed back into the intoxicating swirl of influences both old and new, Eastern and Western.
Shadow Music of Thailand offers an invaluable document of a type of unselfconscious cultural fusion that seems increasingly rare in this era of global pop culture. Its an echo of a pre-internet, pre-satellite-TV age when what artifacts of Western pop culture did reach distant shores often did so in a fragmentary form divorced from context, thus providing the raw materials for endless and unpredictable forms of re-appropriation and reinvention. The CD is also an ideal form of musical transport, taking the listener to a far away place that, while in some ways geographically and historically specific, is also tantalizingly both here and there at once.