By Spencer. Bear with me here. When you see that headline, you’re probably not expecting to see black-and-white pictures of a few guys your grandparents used to listen to. But as in all things musical, the origins of what you know and love today started way before the sounds you recognize. To borrow a metaphor popular with great minds ranging from Isaac Newton to Oasis, greatness is achieved by standing on the shoulders of giants. And while The Beatles may mark the point in time where rock truly entered the album era—and by that, I mean the era in which music was no longer consumed predominantly as popular singles but was now thought of as a collection of songs intended to represent a coherent artistic statement greater than the sum of its parts—we often forget that The Beatles had the benefit of the creative and technical innovations of a few artists who were slowly walking us in the direction of the album concept at least a generation earlier. This is a look at the decidedly non-rock artists who forged the modern rock album. Continue reading
By Spencer. In today’s day of single-song iTunes downloads, the B-side is something of an archaic institution. Strictly speaking, “B-side” once referred to the extra tracks that would be packaged onto a single, and distinguished such songs from the “A-sides” that comprised the single itself. Today, we don’t really package singles that way, so the closest analog is an EP track—but we’re going to start running out of letters if this keeps up. So when I refer to B-sides, I’m going to depart with the conventional nomenclature a bit and loosely include any of an artist’s songs that did not appear on a proper album—so pure singles, along with tracks appearing on EPs, soundtracks, and compilations, and even unreleased or bootleg rarities that make their way onto the internet. These are the songs that, for whatever reason, the artist holds back from the album; maybe they just aren’t as good, maybe they were recorded at a standalone studio session, or maybe they just didn’t fit in with the rest of the album’s aesthetic. There’s an automatic tendency to assume that these songs are inferior to the rest of an artist’s output. And that’s what I’m here to dispel. Because there have always been a few artists who take the B-side a little more seriously, and a deeper look at their B-sides will reveal some of their most rewarding or unique work. Continue reading
By Spencer. Today, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, turns 20. And it’s not hyperbole to suggest that no more influential film has been made in the two decades since. Seriously, name one. You can’t. Pulp Fiction may have borrowed much from Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, 70s blaxploitation, 40s film noir, Saturday morning cartoons, MTV music videos, Jerry Seinfeld, and even M.C. Escher—but the fact that I can seriously describe one movie incorporating all those influences is signal enough of its place in history. Quentin Tarantino reinvented the techniques of moviemaking on a level we hadn’t seen since Orson Welles, and haven’t seen again since. The non-linear chronology. The omnipresent pop culture references. The hand-selected, retro soundtrack. The use of nostalgia as a stylistic device. The extremely naturalistic, conversational execution of completely absurdist dialogue. Tarantino may not have invented any of these techniques, but he’s probably the person most singularly responsible for bringing them into commonplace use among filmmakers. And a film that had every reason to feel dated by now is, twenty years later, even more rewarding than it was in its youth. Continue reading
By Spencer. Brooklyn, New York and Ferguson, Missouri are 950 miles apart — but it’s a trip that takes 25 years. In the quarter century since Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing premiered in theaters, it feels like we’ve come such a great distance. Today, in Brooklyn, you don’t find race riots or policy brutality; you find hipsters and organic markets. Hip-hop is as common in suburbia as it is in the streets. Public Enemy, whose “Fight The Power” gave the the movie its soundtrack and its soul, is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Even our choice of president, a man of both black and white heritage, seems to suggest that whatever the racial animosities Spike Lee exposed back in 1989, we’ve long since learned how to get along.
Yet the events in Ferguson last week can’t help but deflate that kind of confidence. Continue reading
By Spencer. “Everything ends badly. Or else it wouldn’t end.” — Tom Cruise, Cocktail.
By 1998, the Smashing Pumpkins were already falling apart. Their drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain — whose frenetic style had been a long-underrated X-factor in the band’s success — was gone. The famously frosty relationship between Billy Corgan and his bandmates, James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky, was only getting worse. And for the first time in their musical career, they seemed spent. With every release bigger than the last, a bubble had been created, and bubbles always burst. It’s a tribute to the Smashing Pumpkins that, in such a time of turmoil, they created their most intimate, their most personal, and their most mature album. Continue reading
By Jason. Thirty years ago, the battle for the best in thrash metal was just getting started. Megadeth recently formed; Anthrax released their debut album, Fistful Of Metal; and Slayer was only a few years from releasing Reign In Blood. But on July 27, 1984 — exactly thirty years ago this Sunday — four California metal heads effectively ended the competition as it was just getting started with the release of their band’s second studio album, Ride The Lightning. Metallica was on the path to becoming synonymous with metal music. And they would never look back. Continue reading
By Spencer. If Spinal Tap taught us anything, it’s that rock is all about volume. Looking at the Smashing Pumpkins catalog, though, it’s easy to take a slightly different spin on that lesson. Because to them, volume isn’t just a matter of loudness – it’s a matter of quantity. Their wealth of extra material had already given us the 1994 B-sides collection, Pisces Iscariot, but after a double-album as epic as Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, there couldn’t possibly be leftovers, right? Right?
Just one year later we got our answer. Five discs, thirty-three songs, and a ridiculous Buck Rogers-looking package that put the “box” back in “box set,” The Aeroplane Flies High was a case study in showing off. It was a message to the rest of the music world: the only person who could ever top Billy Corgan was Billy Corgan, so don’t even bother trying. Continue reading
By Spencer. How do you top an album as big as Siamese Dream? By going bigger. Now most rock stars would have just stopped there, but with Billy Corgan, nothing can ever be so simple. He had to make an album so big that nobody could ever top it. What else could explain a double album so overflowing, so all-over-the-map, and so ludicrously named as Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness?
In the fall of 1995, the Smashing Pumpkins reached a crucial turning point from which they could never go back. No, I’m not just talking about Billy shaving his head. Or the unnecessary “the” they added to the front of their name. (Though I’m sure we all slept easier knowing, finally and definitively, that “Smashing” was an adjective and not a gerund). The turning point achieved on Mellon Collie was the completion of Billy Corgan’s lifelong mission to become the biggest rock star in the world. And he did it by simultaneously embracing every caricature of rock stardom – and, whether intentionally or not, every caricature of himself – that he could cram into 28 songs. Continue reading
By Spencer. Sometimes a film is less important for what it is, and more important for what it signals to come. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I recently had the opportunity to see the debut films of three of my favorite directors: Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Terrence Malick. What struck me is how, even in the formative moments when these auteurs were still learning their way around a camera much less a set or an editing room, you can still see the unmistakable signature they would each imprint on their future body of work. Continue reading
By Spencer. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to meet Billy Corgan, the man who almost single-handedly provided the soundtrack to my teenage years. The songs that bury themselves inside you at that age – the ones you listened to in your bedroom, over and over and over, until you didn’t even need to hear them anymore because you could play them note-for-note in your mind; the ones you blasted from the stereo of your first car; the ones that made you play air guitar when nobody was looking; the ones that still recall the faces of once-perfect girls and broken hearts and the first desperate fumblings of love – those are the songs that never leave you. Even now, in my early thirties, I can still listen to Smashing Pumpkins (and yes, in my mind, they will always be Smashing Pumpkins; forget the extraneous “the” they added to their name in later years) and instantly feel that sublime twinge of pain and comfort called nostalgia, and know that nothing in my life from here on out will ever mean as much to me as the music of those years. Continue reading