Rock aus Deutschland: ‘Sledgehammer’

Music is one art form for which I am content to remain in the audience. And I love nothing so much as 1980s rock.

About a year ago, I began following Sina Doering, a young German drummer, on YouTube. Sina came to my attention because she specializes in 80s-era rock. 

Sina started out making drum covers. But as her channel has grown, she has expanded into full-band productions, like the performance you see above. Continue reading “Rock aus Deutschland: ‘Sledgehammer’”

‘The Trooper’ on piano

This young woman performs “The Trooper”, from Iron Maiden’s 1983 album, Piece of Mind.

I can’t imagine the talent it would take to pull this off. Bravo.

For reference, here is the original heavy metal song below:

How music piracy gave us nonstop Taylor Swift

I’m not a fan of Taylor Swift; but I can’t entirely ignore her, either, as omnipresent as she is in the media and in our current popular culture. Taylor Swift stands practically alone among under-40 solo vocalists. (More on the reasons for this shortly.)

The result is that there is an excess demand for all things Taylor Swift, and that makes her fans ripe targets for scammers. Organized scalpers have cornered the market for Taylor Swift live performance tickets throughout the country, bidding up prices far beyond the original Ticketmaster levels. 

One interviewed University of Texas student called the secondary market prices “very exploitive”. No argument there. But there’s another problem lurking in the background, beyond the simple greed of the moment. It began about twenty years ago, on file sharing sites on the Internet.  Continue reading “How music piracy gave us nonstop Taylor Swift”

Sunday night music: ‘Purple Haze’

Jimi Hendrix released “Purple Haze”, his signature song, in 1967. Hendrix died in 1970 at the age of 27. 

“Purple Haze” predates this 54-year-old. This song was “classic rock” even when I was growing up in the 1980s. 

Interesting, then, that these kids at School of Rock have chosen it to perform, and that they perform it so well.

The guitar players do a fine job of playing this difficult piece; but the young lady who is the sole vocalist faced a special challenge. 

She is singing a male vocal part, of a somewhat quirky song from her grandparents’ era. And while she obviously isn’t going to convince anyone that she’s Jimi Hendrix, her interpretation manages to be faithful to the original, while adding something new, as well.

“I went to high school with Taylor Swift, and…”

“I went to high school with Taylor Swift — people hated her”. Like that isn’t clickbait. Especially in the venue where the declaration appeared: the youth-centric TikTok.

But that’s the claim of Jessica McClane, of Hendersonville, Tennessee. McClane briefly attended high school with Taylor Swift in the 00s. (And yes, McClane has the yearbooks to prove it.) She’s been talking about the experience on TikTok. 

McClane has few charitable words for the now mega-famous Swift, whom many of us try in vain to ignore. (Hardly a week goes by without a Taylor Swift-related headline in the media, it seems. We can thank the influx of Millennial/Gen Z journalists for that.)

I listened to McClane’s primary TikTok video about Taylor Swift. Per McClane, Taylor Swift’s high school peers “hated her”, but it’s unclear exactly why. There might be something to McClane’s largely negative assessment of Swift. And then again, this might be garden-variety high school drama, remembered by a still-young adult.

@jessicamclane

Everything Ms. Swift does is intentional. 👀@Taylor Swift #taylorswift #taylornation #swifttok #taylorsversion

♬ original sound – Jessica McLane

Much of McClane’s case seems to hinge on the fact that Swift invited Hendersonville High School’s class of 2009 to the CMA awards. (This was three years after the then 20-year-old Swift had left the school.) In McClane’s estimation, Swift did this to say “f**k you” to a hometown crowd that resented her success.

I graduated high school in 1986, before McClane (or Swift) were even born. I’m still in touch with my close-knit high school community. I know how these things go. 

Successful alumni often return to their high schools of origin for victory laps. This happened when I was a student, and some of my former classmates are doing it now. While there is always some ego-stroking involved in such gestures, the triumphant-return-to-high-school isn’t inherently malicious. This is, quite possibly, the second oldest high school story in the world. 

The oldest high school story is the pettiness, envy, and drama that festers among teenagers. Teenagers can be upset, miffed, bruised, and angry for no good reason at all. They dislike someone, and they have no idea why. That’s another thing that hasn’t changed since the 1980s.

McClane’s recollections—and interpretations of past events—are mildly interesting. In the age of TikTok, moreover, it would have taken a monumental act of will for a young person with a credible link to Taylor Swift to resist mentioning it online. But I’m not sure there is a real indictment of the singer to be found here. 

Taylor Swift is one of the most successful and ubiquitous entertainment brands in recent history. Even people like me—who don’t particularly care for her music—can recognize one or two of her songs. To the younger Millennials and Zoomers, Swift is what Michael Jackson and Madonna were to my generation: omnipresent, and yes—more than a little overrated. 

Overrated? Yes, absolutely. Especially for people like me. I acknowledge Taylor Swift’s commercial success, but I don’t “get” it. I simply can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Likewise, I’ve never given Taylor Swift’s character much consideration, but it appears to be a mixed bag. On one hand, she’s capable of being genuinely thoughtful. In 2016, Swift surprised her “oldest fan”—a 96-year-old WWII veteran—with a visit and mini-concert at his nursing home. It’s hard to hate someone who does something like that.

Jessica McClane speculates that “Everything Ms. Swift does is intentional.” So perhaps the nursing home visit was partly for PR purposes. Perhaps it was, indeed. It was still a nice thing to do.

Swift is also capable of being vindictive and resolute, when she feels that her boundaries have been crossed. In 2014, she removed all of her music from Spotify to protest the streaming service’s royalty plan. Around the same time, she was involved in a lawsuit against a radio station deejay who (according to Swift) grabbed her behind. 

Swift is certainly “intentional”; but you don’t reach such a level in the entertainment industry without being intentional…and maybe even a little calculating and mercenary at times. 

As noted above, I’m not a fan of Taylor Swift, which isn’t to say that I actively dislike her music. It just isn’t my thing. I’m a 54-year-old man, after all. I’m the wrong generation, and probably the wrong sex. (In case you haven’t noticed: Taylor Swift’s fanbase is overwhelming under thirty and female.)

I do wish, moreover, that Swift had stayed out of politics. Her political statements since the 2018 midterms give weight to the argument that celebrities should “shut up and sing”.

But I don’t see any smoking gun in McClane’s case against her. Taylor Swift was once a pretty, talented girl in the fishbowl of a high school microcosm, and not everyone there liked her. This, too, is one of the oldest stories in the world.

‘Dark Places’, and the heavy metal controversies of the 1980s

I’m a fan of Gillian Flynn’s novels, and I enjoyed the film adaptation of Gone Girl (2014). So I thought: why not give Dark Places (2015) a try? Although I had read the 2009 novel, enough years had passed that much of the plot had seeped out of my mind. (That happens more and more often, the older I get.)

First, the acting. The two female leads in this movie (Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz) were perfect choices. Charlize Theron has proven herself willing to downplay her physical beauty for the sake of a dramatically challenging antihero role. (See her performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003).) And the lead role of Libby Day, the tragic but unlikable protagonist of Dark Places, forced her to make the most of these skills.

Chloë Grace Moretz, meanwhile, played the teenage femme fatale, Diondra Wertzner, in the backstory scenes (which comprise a significant portion of the movie). Moretz provided just the right blend of sex appeal and darkness that this character required, more or less what I imagined while reading the novel. 

I’ve been following Moretz’s career since her breakout role as a child vampire in Let Me In (2010). Now in her twenties, Moretz seems almost typecast as a dark/horror movie actress; but she always manages to pull off the perfect creepy female character. (Note: Be sure to watch Let Me In if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Dark Places kept me glued to the screen. As I was watching the film, the plot of the book came back to me. Dark Places remained faithful to its literary source material, but in a way that moved the plot along more smoothly than the novel did. (This might be one of those rare cases in which the movie is actually a little better than the novel, which—despite being good—drags in places.)

As alluded to above, Dark Places is primarily set in the twenty-first century, with a significant portion concerning flashback events of 1985, when the adult characters were children or teenagers. 

I was 17 in 1985, and I remember that era well. Much of this part of the story revolves around rumors of teenage “devil worship”, and the influence of “satanic” heavy metal: Dio, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne. This is an old controversy that I hadn’t thought about much in decades. Dark Places brought some of those long-ago debates back to me.

I listened to plenty of heavy metal back in the 1980s. (I still do). The heavy metal of Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden does not encourage satanism, any more than films like The Exorcist encourage satanism. But like The Exorcist, some ‘80s heavy metal does dwell excessively on dark themes. And here is where the source of the confusion lies.

I never had the urge to draw a pentagram on my bedroom wall or sacrifice goats while listening to Blizzard of Oz or Piece of Mind. Nor did I detect any dark exhortations in the lyrics, whether overt or subliminal. 

Since the 1980s, Ozzy Osbourne has become a reality TV star. Iron Maiden’s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, has emerged as a polymath who writes books and flies commercial airliners when not on tour.

Ozzy strikes me as one of the most gentle people you might ever meet. Dickinson, meanwhile, is a conservative (in the British context of that political label) and a eurosceptic. Neither man fits the profile of the devil-worshipping maniac. 

I will admit, though, that some 80s metal music became a bit cumbersome to listen to on a regular basis. I eventually moved on to more light-hearted, commercial rock like Def Leppard. I still listen to a lot more Def Leppard than Ozzy Osbourne or Iron Maiden. But I digress.

Not satanic, but not exactly easy listening, either

The 1980s fear-mongering over heavy metal turned out to be just that: fear-mongering. Although I’m sure there were isolated real-life horror stories, I didn’t know a single kid in the 1980s who was into satanism. The teenage satanists of the 1980s existed almost entirely within the fevered imaginations of a few evangelical preachers and their followers.

Back to Dark Places. The problem (with both the book and the movie) is that it is a fundamentally depressing story, without any characters that the reader/viewer can wholeheartedly root for. While there is a reasonable conclusion, there is nothing approaching a happy ending, or even a satisfying ending. That is a central flaw that no acting or directing talent can rectify. 

This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t worth watching. It is. But make sure you schedule a feel-good comedy film shortly thereafter. You’ll need it. And don’t watch Dark Places if you’re already feeling gloomy or depressed.

Loretta Lynn and the American dream

I won’t lie: I barely know Tim McGraw from Buck Owens. Country music has never been my cup of tea. 

But who can’t relate to the song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”? 

Whatever your musical tastes, it’s inspiring to think that a girl born in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky at the height of the Great Depression could grow up to become instantly recognizable, even to those of us who don’t listen to much country music. 

She also brought joy to millions of people with her music for more than six decades. You might not be a rabid Loretta Lynn fan, but you probably know someone who is. Here in southern Ohio, I know plenty of them.

Loretta Lynn, 90, RIP.

For 1983, a different kind of torch song

Thirty-nine years ago today, on September 15, 1983, Huey Lewis & the News released their 3rd studio album, Sports. 

I can’t listen to any songs on this album without being catapulted back to the mid-1980s (which was, on the whole, a nice place to be). 

Sports was the group’s breakout album, with four top-ten hits. The song below, however, is the best of the bunch…or at least the most unique. 

It’s a different kind of torch song. Whereas most songs about unrequited love are sappy and rather pathetic, this one is more down-to-earth. 

“If this is it, please let me know…” isn’t a perfect comeback to unreturned affection, of course. (If you have to ask, you already know the answer.) But it’s better than most.

Old music with new voices: Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”

It brings my Gen X heart joy to see the music of my 1980s youth given new life by talented young musicians. And there is a lot of young talent on YouTube nowadays.

Andreea Munteanu is the lead singer of a Romanian band called Iron Cross. She also has a solo YouTube channel.

Iron Cross and Andreea Munteanu both specialize in 80s metal. But after last month’s death of Olivia Newton-John, Ms. Munteanu performed “Physical”, ONJ’s 1981 pop chart topper. 

I was in the 8th grade when the original version of this song (below) came out. It was everywhere: on FM radio, and the new medium of MTV. “Physical” occupied the number one slot on the US Billboard Top 100 for 10 weeks. That set a record for the 1980s. 

Because of the tongue-in-cheek, suggestive lyrics, “Physical” was mildly controversial in 1981. Yes, really. At least one major radio station (in Salt Lake City, I believe), refused to play it. Moralistic killjoys, alas, have always been with us. 

I like Andreea Munteanu’s version of the song, and her reimagining of the original MTV video. Munteanu is, yes, very easy on the eyes. We need not be coy about that. But she’s also a very talented singer with a strong stage presence. 

The other members of Iron Cross (all male), are excellent musicians, as well. Check out their YouTube channel. If you like heavy metal, you’ll probably like their stuff.

The Beatles in Hamburg, and ‘The Cairo Deception’

As many of you will know, I recently wrapped up The Cairo Deception, my 5-book World War II series.

One of the final chapters of the book depicts the Beatles performing in Hamburg, West Germany in December 1962. (I won’t go into more story detail than that, so as to avoid spoilers.)

This is actually true. When I discovered this lesser known piece of rock music history, I just couldn’t resist putting it in the book, as an Easter egg for Beatles fans.

The Beatles both resided and performed in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962. The Beatles’ Hamburg residence took place shortly before they became a global phenomenon. The band also performed at a music venue in Hamburg called The Star-Club, as described in Postwar: Book 5 of The Cairo Deception. 

The Beatles of the Hamburg period involved a slightly different lineup of the band: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. After the group returned to England at the end of 1962, Sutcliffe and Best left the band, and Ringo Starr was hired on as the new drummer.

Click here to view THE CAIRO DECEPTION series on Amazon

Two songs for Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, at least in the United States.

If you were fortunate enough to have a relationship with your father, and if your father is still alive, take a few minutes today to show him your appreciation.

I was blessed in this regard. I had a good relationship with my father (who is still with me) and my grandfather (who passed in 1998).

There are many memories of them both that I could relate. Perhaps I’ll get to that later in the day. For now, though, I’m going to leave you with two songs about fathers and fatherhood.

The first of these is Dan Fogelberg’s “The Leader of the Band” (1981), which explores the father-child relationship from the child’s perspective. The second is Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1975), which looks at fatherhood from the father’s perspective.

Both are worth listening to and reflecting upon as you begin Father’s Day, 2021.

‘The Osbournes Want to Believe’: quick review

Watch The Osbournes Want to Believe on Amazon 

The music of Ozzy Osbourne has long been one of my guilty pleasures. I’m from the Ozzy generation, you might say. I hit adolescence in the early 1980s, perfect timing for Ozzy’s three breakout albums: Blizzard of Oz (1980), Diary of a Madman (1981) and Bark at the Moon (1983).

By the time I graduated from high school in 1986, Ozzy Osbourne’s music  was already becoming somewhat predictable and repetitive. Or maybe I was just getting older?…Who knows? But anyway—if you were around in the early 1980s and into rock music, you’ll surely remember the energy of those first few albums. They were really something.

Ozzy Osbourne was always more of an entertainer than a technical musician. From the beginning of his solo career, the former Black Sabbath frontman effected this macabre persona, which was uniquely appealing to 13-year-old boys, circa 1981. Then there was the thing about him biting the head off a dove at a meeting with CBS record executives. (He was intoxicated at the time.)

By the early 2000s, Ozzy Osbourne’s style of music was long past its expiration date. The singer pivoted—to reality TV. From 2002 to 2005, MTV aired The Osbournes. Each episode of The Osbournes was basically a day-in-the-life with the singer and his family. I caught about fifteen minutes of one such episode, and immediately knew that The Osbournes wasn’t for me. I’m not a big fan of reality TV to begin with, and I found Ozzy’s two teenage children, Kelly and Jack, somewhat annoying.

I was therefore a bit skeptical when I tuned into my first episode of The Osbournes Want to Believe, which now airs on the Travel Channel. But the The Osbournes Want to Believe is actually not too bad…if you’re willing to accept it for what it is.

The Osbournes Want to Believe presents a new spin on the well-traveled paranormal investigation/ghosthunting TV genre. This show doesn’t feature parapsychologists and professional skeptics, breaking down videos of shadowy figures and independently moving objects. Here, instead, you watch and listen as three members of the Osbourne family give their take on such matters.

Son Jack serves as the host of the show. Yes, I found him annoying 18 years ago; but he’s now 35 and actually pretty good as a television host.

Ozzy Osbourne, meanwhile, is a shadow of his former self. To quote his Wikipedia entry, Ozzy “has abused alcohol and other drugs for most of his adult life.” In 1978, he unapologetically told a journalist, “I get high, I get f***ed up … what the hell’s wrong with getting f***ed  up? There must be something wrong with the system if so many people have to get f***ed up … I never take dope or anything before I go on stage. I’ll smoke a joint or whatever afterwards.”

The singer is now in his early seventies, and his decades of substance abuse are readily apparent. Ozzy is always likable, and at times genuinely witty; but he seems constantly on the verge of falling asleep. If not for his reputation, Ozzy could be mistaken for Joe Biden giving an unscripted press conference. (Sorry! I couldn’t resist.) No one need wonder, though, why Jack serves as the show’s moderator. Ozzy would not be up to the task.

Sharon Osbourne, of The Talk, is perfectly lucid and endlessly chirpy. Nor is she exactly unlikable. But—like the class clown of everyone’s school days— she tries too hard to turn every remark into a joke. Her humor doesn’t always miss the mark; but it rapidly wears thin because it just never stops.

The overall tone of the show is informal and conversational. The set looks like a room in one of the homes owned by Osbourne. Watching The Osbournes Want to Believe gives you the sense that you’re sitting around with this oddball family, watching these weird videos of weird happenings.

The Osbournes Want to Believe is not cutting-edge television; but it isn’t trying to be. And although I’m not an expert on such matters, it doesn’t appear to be cutting-edge in the field of paranormal research, either. Most of the commentary—however witty and occasionally funny—is purely speculative and anecdotal. 

This show seems to be yet one more attempt to cash in on the Ozzy Osbourne brand. That brand was launched more than 50 years ago, when the first Black Sabbath album hit the record stores in 1970.

How long can the Ozzy brand go on and continue to make money? Probably for as long as Ozzy can be dissuaded from completely obliterating himself with drugs and alcohol.

How songs connect us to memory

I was never a huge fan of Richard Marx. (I never actively disliked his music, either. I just wasn’t a raving fan.) 

But boy, the summer of 1987 was his moment. That summer, I spent a lot of time in my car, listening to FM radio, and this Richard Marx song was on the radio endlessly

When I hear it now, I’m instantly transported back to that time and place. That hot, fun summer. I was nineteen years old.

Songs often ground us to particular moments in our past–sometimes even songs that we didn’t necessarily love at the time, but nevertheless heard a lot.  

Rush retrospective

45 years ago, ‘unknown band’ Rush played Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena

I haven’t been a Rush fan for 45 years–not quite. (I was only 6 years old in 1974.) But I’ve easily been a Rush fan for 35 years–since the early 1980s.

Although Rush is now retired, I still enjoy the band’s music. 

From the ‘Moving Pictures’ album (1981)

Song of the day: “The Spirit of Radio”

A Rush song for Rush fanatics and non-fanatics alike.

You can’t beat Rush. This song is the most popular track from the band’s Permanent Waves album (1980).

Many Rush songs are less than radio-friendly. This one is the perfect length for radio play. It’s also fun, and upbeat and (unlike some Rush songs) instantly accessible. 

A personal note here: I took guitar lessons in the early 1980s, and I did learn how to play the guitar portion of this song on my old Peavy electric guitar.