Thursday, April 30, 2009

Digital media: pretty as a picture... but it sucks!

I’m a collector by instinct and an archivist by nature, so when I record something, I’m definitely thinking of keeping it for posterity. Thus I’ve got a collection of a few thousand VHS tapes that contain rare material, from interviews I’ve done for the Funhouse cable program, to movies I taped off broadcast TV or cable that have fallen into the “abyss” that consumes all titles that don’t get a prestige DVD release, to talk show appearances, musical performances and music vids, and special moments from the cornucopia of strangeness that was NYC public acess.

The reason I bring this is up is that pretty much all of my VHS tapes are still playable. Yes, the picture fades as the years go by, IF the recording was done at EP/SLP speed (the stuff done at SP looks damned fine, even two decades on) or IF the VCR it was recorded on was a dud. Tapes from the Nineties still play, tapes from the Eighties still play, and even items from the dim, dark Seventies will play, although they are startin’ to wear. On the other hand, mini-DV, the standard on which I've been recording the show for the past four years or so, a medium that has gorgeous visual quality that far surpasses VHS, has a very definite shelf life. I found this out last year when I reran shows made exactly one year before, in 2007. Some of the tapes (all the same brand, all bought brand new from a reputable retailer) dropped sound, while one or two had already started to have that boxy digitization that makes digital matter unwatchable. I also have a show done in 2002 on mini-DV that simply doesn’t play. I’ve been informed by a tech-knowledgeable friend that this could be due to a humidity situation, and that colder storage could restore the tape to playability. Perhaps that is indeed the case, but I’m wary of attempting to freeze the tapes and possibly getting moisture into a tiny bit ’o plastic with tape inside it — plus, damn, did VHS tapes ever need such ridiculously ginger handling and climate-conscious storage? (If you’ve ever lived in a big-city apartment, you know it can get humid inside, but not truly tropical-humid!).

So let’s just throw out some statistics: We were told VHS tapes would have a 15-year lifespan, and they’re still playin’ some two to three decades on. Mini-DV palm-sized little slabs of plastic start to weird out within one year, and seem to go completely wonky after five years. I have no idea how long the material on DVD-rs will last — the timespan quoted to me was 20-30 years (quite a step down from vinyl records which, barring excessive heat or a nasty needle, last forever). Of course, if you take into account how feebly the things are manufactured, and that using a Sharpie to mark them can cut down their playback ability appreciably, I think you get the picture: analog was accused of being temporal, but was made to last. Digital looks abso-fuckin’-lutely gorgeous, and yet our collections of films, TV shows, and clips could be useless in anywhere from a year to five years to two decades. Planned obsolescence at its most insidious. A vigilant archivist would have to re-dub his or her collection each and every five years just to be safe in this ridiculous, pretty-lookin’ digital era. How’s that for improving things?

Friday, April 24, 2009

The one and only, Mr. Sammy Petrillo

Sammy Petrillo is best known as the most startlingly accurate Jerry Lewis impersonator ever, the man who starred as half of the Martin & Lewis knockoff team that was the focus of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). In fact, Petrillo wasn’t a Jerry impersonator intentionally — it was something he fell into, by dint of the fact that he looked identical to, and could sound incredibly like, the Martin & Lewis-era Jerry. Sammy’s career has been spotty, but there were a few more fascinating moments in the peripheral limelight after Brooklyn Gorilla. In an interview I conducted with Sammy back in 1997, he spoke about these cult items.

First, the prank phone call LP he released in the early 1960s:

And also his starring/scripting turn in Doris Wishman’s mind-blowingly weird sex movie Keyholes are for Peeping(1972):

Michelle Bauer on working on homo-erotic softcore

“Scream queen” is a rather flexible term, used to describe everyone from the classic actresses in old horror pictures (Beverly Garland, Barbara Steele) to girls who have made micro-budgeted shot-on-video necro-fetish pics. Michelle Bauer is one of the ladies who truly earned that label by appearing in countless horror movies, as well as many sex comedies and exploitation pictures (and earlier on, some famous hardcore features, like CafĂ© Flesh). I had a very nice time talking to Ms. Bauer more than a decade ago at the Chiller Theatre convention. Here is a clip where she discusses her work with David DeCouteau, the low-budget genre director who also made softcore homo-erotic pics under the name “Ellen Cabot.”

Friday, April 17, 2009

'Japan Nite' remembered: songs from the rockin'-est bands

I mentioned in my Lux Interior Deceased Artiste tribute how much I love good punk rock (a rare bird, but one that can be caught on occasion), garage rock, and all things pure pop. I also mentioned how I’ve been disappointed that the recent formulation of “garage” as a full-out genre by Little Steven has neglected some of the intrinsic elements championed by Lux and Ivy of the Cramps, from psyched-out rockabilly to novelty records (two fringe types of music that did land squarely in the “garage” quite loudly and quite often). Also having escaped the radar of the “Underground Garage” classifiers, sadly, is any rock ’n’ roll that is not in English — my semi-regular listens to the UG satellite channel over a period of months a while back yielded only one song in another language, a French bit of psych joy played by substitute DJ Peter Zaremba. Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a series of “Japan Nite” shows held in Manhattan that have offered confirmation that terrific rock and roll is indeed alive and well in the ol’ Land of the Rising Sun. The “Japan Nite” shows offer a number of acts for a low price (much appreciated), and the bands range in musical genres from punk to reggae, psych, and bouncy pop (with a few sideways diversions into “jam-band” territory, not my fave field of inquiry). At each show I’ve discovered at the very least two groups that have just blown me away, thanks to their purebred devotion to good old-fashioned rock/punk/garage and their crafting of new tunes that sound like — the highest compliment I can give to pop tunesmithing — they’ve already been written before (ah, the rock song that sounds familiar but ain’t… ’cause it’s catchy as hell). These bands are ALL present on MySpace, and all have their own sites, but I thought I’d offer my own tiny sampler of one song each from seven of the bands I’ve seen at these shows. Each tune offers a little glimpse at what the band does best, and hopefully might spur ya on to checking out their websites, videos on YouTube, and maybe even to springing for one of their CDs (you remember those little silver discs people used to buy, dontcha?). If anyone representing the bands would like me to remove their song from the download below, please contact me via the Media Funhouse website (link is on the right). Starting off, we have the headliners for the first show I saw, GitoGito Hustler. No, I don’t know what the fuck their band name means, but this all-girl combo seem to worship at the altar of the Ramones, and that’s enough for me to love them to death. “Love and Roll” is the title song from one of their albums, and it is catchy bubblegum punk that sticks to the brainpan. The lead singer announced from the stage that you needed to buy their T-shirts and CDs so they could have airfare back to Japan and “beer money.” She also described their first visit to NYC, upon which they were whisked away to a White Castle, which is possibly the best way for someone from another culture to experience the sleaze that is America. Noodles make straight-ahead pure pop for now people, and “Ingrid Said” is one of those songs you’re sure you’ve heard before, but it’s an original composition. Besides having one of the simplest names at any of the Japan Nite shows, the band won me over by doing some gorgeously simple and cool pop. Plus they covered the Buzzcocks. Petty Booka are a fascinating act composed of two young Japanese women who play ukuleles and sing pretty much exclusively in English (in their American gigs at least). They are backed by two gentlemen, one Japanese and one American, and their repertoire is a wonderful group of covers of songs I love deeply, ranging from the Kinks’ “Come Dancing” to Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket.” They seem like a gimmicky joke act when you first see them — they perform in cowgirl outfits — but the ladies have a real love for the music they’re singing, and I think that comes out in their cover of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” I’m not a major Dead fan, but I actually had forgotten how much I loved that song until I heard Petty Booka cover it in countrified fashion. They look like a “novelty act” but sound like true believers and betray a talent that’s surprising. Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re is a three-piece girl band that does what Japanese ladies in music do like no others: they transform during their set from adorable pop musicians (they recorded a song for “The Powerpuff Girls” in Japan!) to hard-rocking post-punk noise rockers. The transformation is amazing to watch, and the songs are just as good. I’ve included their ode to a guy named “Ebihara Shinji.” Asakusa Jinta is a five-piece combo that plays music that combines rock, klezmer, ska, and big band music. It’s infectious as hell, as you can hear in “Ride and Bend” (don’t ask, ’cause I don’t know — we ain’t talking about lyrics here!). The band is a delight to watch, as is any group that includes horns and a damn big bass in the lead singer’s hands. Again, they may seem like a novelty act on first viewing, but they’re talented musicians with a little touch of the deranged. I couldn’t ask for more. Samurai Attack is a male punk band (see, I don’t just advocate bands with chicks in ’em!) that rock out onstage in full Clash mode. The band started as a high school group back in ’84, and their brand of rock does nod back to those better years of fast, loud frenzy. I’ve included here “Delight,” an AWESOMELY catchy Japanese variation on “A Lover’s Concerto,” the hit by the Toys and the Supremes that was adapted by Brill Building songwriters from a Bach minuet. You ain’t gonna believe it, but the night I saw these boys, they were the second act to present a variation on a piece by Bach in pop mode. (Walter/Wendy Carlos, you did your work well…). And since “Louie, Louie” is arguably the ultimate raunchy rock song, why not close out with a cover of it by one of the best Japanese kick-ass rock acts, Detroit 7? Named after the MC5, the group is a three-piece sonic machine that is headed by Tomomi Nabana, who commands the stage like few American female rockers I’ve seen in recent years. Barefoot, playing guitar with a vengeance, and possessing a gritty voice that indicates a number of years of smoking, she is mesmerizing on stage. Like all the Japan Nite performers, she was in the lounge area of the club (the Bowery Ballroom) after the show. She is small in person, and a double take was required to realize she was the young woman who had just slayed us on stage. These Japanese bands are known only to dedicated fans here in America — and those of us who are introduced to the music by dedicated fans. The Japan Nite shows tour around American cities and are well worth your money, even in this unnamed Depression (five bands for 15 dollars is nothing to sneer at, particularly when at least two or three are gonna light up your world). I thank my friend Art Black for introducing me to this “scene” and several other bands I didn’t have room to cover here. This music is entertaining as hell, and stays with ya well after the show is over. Who cares if you can’t tell what they’re singing? You mean someone actually could decipher “Louie Louie” (or the Sex Pistols) back in the day? It’s only rock and roll, man… Click here for a sample song from each of the bands described above.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Religious metaphors don't come any blunter: The Donut Hole

Each year at Easter I celebrate the Paschal season by presenting Christian kitsch on the Funhouse. I’ve found that Christian entertainment (now known as “inspirational” entertainment, in order to not scare away new converts) ranges from the purely ridiculous to the insidiously offensive to tender-hearted treacle. The most memorable kind, though, involves music — and not church music or gospel music, but that oddly all-inclusive label (which defines the artist rather than their music) “Christian contemporary” and (you want hooks? You got ’em) Christian kiddie entertainment.

Thus, in the spirit of the season, I offer six clips from one of the most memorable Christian kiddie creations, The Donut Hole. The Donut Hole series is the brainchild of a gentleman named Rob Evans, who plays the lead role, the “Donut Man” who leads “the Donut Repair Club.” In this group of children and one adult man (think of the original Mousketeers, if Roy or Jimmy really ran the whole show), the assembled group “repairs” donuts by filling their holes with Dunkin’ Munchkins (never named as such, so copyright is leaned on but not violated). Evans reasoning for this odd little bit of really blatant metaphor and almost obscene symbolism? That your heart, without Jesus, has a hole in it. When Christ shows up, our hole is filled. I am not making this up, and the footage below bears me out.

In the process, Evans and his fellow “Donut” producers use bouncy, jumpy, hooky tunes to drive home their point that Christ is, um, er… a hole-filler. The songs cannot be forgotten and haunt me long after I eject the tapes (yes, I’ve only seen these suckers on VHS). Like many things I’ve been proud to present on the Funhouse, The Donut Hole must be seen to be believed. The first clip below sells the concept, the rest were uploaded to show how mind-warpingly catchy the tunes are (and how the Donut Repair kids strut their stuff before and after this odd donut ceremony).

My thanks go out to comic book creator and kitsch connoisseur Bob Fingerman for his recommending Evans’ original mind-warp to me more than a decade ago.

The introduction to the hole-filling concept:

The little black girl in the group leads a rap:

A country-themed “prodigal son” song that goes for a long, long time (at two minutes):

From a later tape: the gang sing and skip and dance and shout “Hallelujah!”:

The Donut Man in drag doing a very “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”-sounding song. I cut this one down, so you’re missing his Monty Python “pepperpot” impression (believe me, it takes a long while to get to…):

And yet another, pithier explanation of the fill-your-holes-for-Christ concept: