Wednesday, 5 May 2021

FALLING, WE’RE FALLING, WE’RE FALLING [295]


“French Kissin,” more often remembered as “French Kissin in the USA,” was the main single from Debbie Harry’s 1986 album “Rockbird,” made while the band Blondie was on hold. It was a success in the US, and Harry’s only top ten single in the UK. 

However, while the song is good, it is not the main reason it is likely to be remembered these days, because the person that wrote it has become very successful in his own right: he had been a touring singer-songwriter for years before Harry recorded one of his songs, and he had since said his songs made sure he was kept out of the limelight, before he turned to writing scripts for television.


Chuck Lorre’s first scripts were for animated shows, meaning that, as I grew up, I would have seen episodes he wrote of “Heathcliff & The Catillac Cats,” “Muppet Babies,” ”Fraggle Rock,” and “Beany and Cecil” – there are other shows, but I don’t think they reached the UK, or I don’t remember them at all. As these shows date from 1984 onwards, either Lorre continued with songwriting without much success, or “French Kissin” was a few years old before Harry recorded it.

This then led to live-action sitcoms, with Lorre on the writing teams for “My Two Dads” and “Roseanne,” before he created his own, “Frannie’s Turn,” which only lasted for 6 episodes in 1992. However, this led to “Cybill,” “Grace Under Fire,” “Dharma & Greg,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Mike & Molly” and “The Big Bang Theory.” 

These are all shows that have their charms but, especially when Channel 4 or ITV 2 screen episodes of them two or more in a row, they start to feel too much like stereotypical American sitcoms: with at least twenty-two episodes to be made each year, and with ten minutes in every half-hour swallowed by commercials, the plots, characters and jokes can become forced: forced to fit the time left, and forced to make their points quickly, with no breathing space. Chuck Lorre clearly knows the formula to producing a successful TV show, but successful TV show must also hide its workings. Also, I have never found the character or Sheldon Cooper funny, or relatable, and I never will.


“French Kissin” is the only Chuck Lorre composition to have scored in the charts, but it is not his only successful effort in music. With Dennis Challen Brown, Lorre wrote the incidental music, and the horrendously catchy theme song, for the original animated series of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” – “heroes in a half shell,” and so on. And, yes, the spoken parts were by Lorre, which include, “We’re really hip!” and “That's a fact, Jack!” When you also know that the co-writer of the music for “The Real Ghostbusters” and “Inspector Gadget” was Haim Saban, he of the “Power Rangers” franchise, it does appear that the way to make billions of dollars is to start writing music for children’s TV shows.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

WHILE STROLLING THROUGH THE PARK ONE DAY [294]

[Above: The Dover Boys at Pimento University, or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall (1942), in the public domain.]

“But hold on, what’s this? It looks like an alert young scout. And that’s just what it is!”

The house style of the Warner Bros. “Merrie Melodies” and “Looney Tunes” cartoons took time to develop. By 1942, the director given the highest budgets, a certain Charles M. “Chuck” Jones, was asked if he could move his cartoons away from the style that had been cemented by Disney, and copied by everyone else. What they got was so different, Jones was nearly fired for it. By the end of the decade, it had changed the industry.


I wanted to start this by concentrating on how batshit crazy “The Dover Boys at Pimento University, or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall” is as a story, how unthinkingly stupid its characters are, and how much of a joy it was to come across it for the first time, but I needed to emphasise from the outset just how important it is in the history of animation – it is like enjoying listening to Jackie Wilson singing “Reet Petite,” then remembering that Berry Gordy, the song’s co-writer, used his royalties from Wilson’s recordings to launch what became Motown Records.

In 1942, American audiences would have got the joke of “The Dover Boys” immediately. It is a satire of “The Rover Boys,” a Boy’s Own-type adventure series set at a military school – one road from it leads to “The Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew,” and another to “The Famous Five” and “The Secret Seven.” Names are changed, from Tom, Sam and Dick to Tom, Dick and Larry; their collective girlfriend, Dora Standpipe, was Dora Stanhope; and the most Dickensian name goes to Dan Backslide, formerly Dan Baxter. The Victorian melodrama is played at the expense of the story: we have one-dimensional heroes, a one-dimensional enemy, and a damsel in distress, but from there, the film becomes an onslaught on your senses.



The Dover Boys themselves are introduced on bicycles, all at odd angles, while the narrator refrains from calling them jerks. Dan Backslide is literally green with envy (and probably nicotine), and has no indoor voice: “Confound those Dover Boys! They drive me to drink!” During a game of Hide and Seek, the boys hide across a park, and across the city, and when Backslide sees them, he announces, in a shout that continues to reduce me to laughter with how on the nose the line is, “Dora must be ALONE AND UNPROTECTED!” Even more, when Backslide sees a car, he announces, “a runabout. I’LL STEAL IT! NO-ONE WILL EVER KNOW!” What did I do to deserve the opportunity to laugh so much?!

This is before you even get to the visual gags: all dramatic poses are held in time until we go back to the characters, the Dover Boys punch themselves out in a triangle of fists, missing Dan Backslide, and Dora Standpipe is unnaturally strong, fulfilling her role in shouting “Help!” while throwing Backslide about, until he himself is crying for help – all the while, Dora could either break through the door she pounds on, or just unlock it. It is as if the story was left to replay for years, and now we have come back to it, it has glitched, or degraded, until only bits of it are left.



The animation is much more stylised here – it is more limited, and smear animation is often used between key poses, making for some brilliant freeze frame images. It may also be why, at approaching nine minutes, it is two minutes longer than an average Warner Bros. cartoon without any extra drawing. These techniques are more likely to be found in TV cartoons from Hanna-Barbera, and in cartoons from UPA like “Gerald McBoing-Boing,” and their Mr Magoo series, but it is generally acknowledged that, because Chuck Jones did it in “The Dover Boys,” everyone else could now follow. 

However, for 1942, this may have been too far away from Disney for Warner Bros and producer Leon Schlesinger – they refused to release the cartoon, and Jones was on the verge of being fired, especially when the kind of satire presented could be misconstrued as coming from someone that either didn’t care, or could be taking advantage of their situation by submitting deceptively low-standard work. But because there was a release schedule to keep, and the onset of World War II meant extra talent would be harder to find, everything had to stay where it was. In fact, “The Dover Boys” was one of the last cartoons not to be war-related for a while, as Jones went on to help with the “Private Snafu” shorts for the US army, and all animation companies made war-related cartoons for a few years.



Put simply, just watch “The Dover Boys,” for animation history is remade from here onwards. It was the first time Chuck Jones found one of his own cartoons to be funny, and when you consider what was attached to his name afterwards, that says an awful lot.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

MAGIC MOMENTS [293]

Allow me to take a moment of your time to tell you that, once upon a time, a “moment” was an actual, measurable period of time, equivalent to one minute, thirty seconds. 

From the eighth to the thirteenth century, at a time when people still relied on sundials to tell the time, the writings of the Venerable Bede detailed how hours were broken into four points, named “puncta,” and each of those were made of ten “momenta,” from the Latin for “moving,” as in the word “momentum.” These divisions were made in order to complete various calculations, particularly in astronomy, but would not have been used by the wider public, whose main indicators of time remained sunrise, sunset, and church bells.

 

This usage fell out of favour when the advent of mechanical clocks in the thirteenth century standardised the length of an hour, no longer reliant on the sun. Counting up to sixty was present in ancient civilisations even before the Babylonians, but it was the Iranian scholar Al-Biruni, in around 1000 AD, who is credited with first describing how to divide hours into minutes, seconds, thirds and fourths. 

 

Ninety seconds is usually enough time to produce a summary of practically everything you need, particularly of the day’s events. Until recently, BBC One ran a ninety-second news bulletin at 8pm, making it the most-watched bulletin in the country, and even back in the 1970s, WPVI’s “Action News,” Deleware Valley’s leading news programme, capped news stories at ninety seconds both to cram in more stories, and to keep the pace up. I get where they’re coming from.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

EVERYONE YOU SEE IS FULL OF LIFE [292]


The words “breakfast television” conjure a picture of two people, one man and one woman, sitting on a sofa in front of a coffee table, in what looks like the viewers’ own living room, talking about the news, introducing topical items and interviewing celebrities, with no item lasting long enough to distract people from starting their day. 

 

This is not so much drawing up a stereotype as taking an average: all breakfast shows on British television since 1983, when the BBC’s “Breakfast Time” became Europe’s first TV breakfast show, include these elements in some way, and despite experimentation with these elements, like Channel 4’s anarchic “The Big Breakfast,” this average is pretty much the only format that has worked.

 

The show most representing this format was the first to be named “Good Morning Britain,” airing on ITV from 1983 to 1992, and was produced by TV-am, which had won the licence created to provide breakfast television on the network. It is best remembered as a lightweight and breezy mix of celebrity interviews and topical features presented by more celebrities, presided over by the likeable presenting duo of Anne Diamond and Nick Owen, later joined by Richard Keys, Mike Morris, Kay Burley and Lorraine Kelly, the latter of which has presented at this time of day ever since, with the occasional interjection on school holidays by the puppet Roland Rat, and later Timmy Mallett with “Wacaday”. 

 

“Good Morning Britain” had begun as a diet of hard news and heavyweight interviews, presented by big-name presenters like David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and Robert Kee, but viewers deserted once the novelty of breakfast television wore off. TV-am had misjudged the BBC which, having been expected to present a similar news-based show, instead went with a lighter, folksier mix of news and current affairs presented by former “Grandstand” presenter Frank Bough, alongside the newsreader Selina Scott. On the week it began, “Breakfast Time” editor Ron Neil told the “Radio Times” it had learned from the US TV networks to relax the viewer into the day: “If we pummel people with facts and analysis at that time of the morning, they just won’t want to know.” Similar emphasis was placed on conversation, even when talking to news reporters, while relying less on visual displays of information to prevent rooting the audience to their chairs.

 


The response at TV-am was panic, as audiences for “Good Morning Britain” sank to only 100,000 within its first few weeks. Once presenters and management were fired or, in the case of David Frost, shunted to Sundays to carry on the political interviews, the response was to copy the BBC’s formula, bringing in similar exercise and cookery spots, TV reviews, an “on this day” feature, an agony aunt slot, and even reading out the bingo numbers from that day’s newspapers… and bring in Roland Rat. With TV-am engaged in a battle of survival both to meet viewers’ expectations and attract advertisers, they rose to become the more natural place for bright and breezy morning TV than the BBC, which eventually relaunched “Breakfast Time” in 1986 as the hard news programme, presented from a desk, that TV-am had originally expected from them. By the 1990s, “Good Morning Britain” had an audience of 2.7 million people, seventy per cent of the available audience, and nearly three times that of the BBC’s renamed “Breakfast News.”

 

“Good Morning Britain” only stopped broadcasting in 1992 because TV-am lost their licence to broadcast, but replacements GMTV (1993-2010), “Daybreak” (2010-14) and the neo-“Good Morning Britain” from 2014 all had problems when they initially began, from sets being too dark for 6am, to their features not being distinctive enough, or having too many presenters on screen at once. In all cases, some element of the TV-am formula returned, from the sofa and coffee table, to simply having brighter colours on the set – the first “Good Morning Britain” began with an brick-walled set emulating a chich apartment, which over time was painted salmon pink and filled with more and more potted plants. The only continuity between these shows for ITV has been the engaging and professional tone of its presenters like Kate Garraway, Richard Arnold, Ben Shephard, Dr Hilary Jones and Lorraine Kelly.

 

The current “Good Morning Britain” is a different beast, particularly in the combative and controversial arguments and subject matters discussed when Piers Morgan appeared as a presented from October 2015 to March 2021, when he talked himself off the show due to his comments regarding Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. As polarising and infuriating as the programme became under Morgan – long, combative interviews, pushing out fixed and reliable times for news bulletins, weather and anything else – it succeeded in prolonging the audience for the show beyond its finish time, recycling clips from the programme through the day through online news sites and social media, much like news items from the BBC’s “Breakfast” being replayed through the day on the BBC News Channel. The content that comes out of the current “Good Morning Britain” is more important than the time it was originally broadcast, an option not available to TV-am. 

 

However, the pattern established by the original “Good Morning Britain” continues, except it appears to have been reclaimed by the BBC. “Breakfast” continues primarily as a news programme, but it fits the image I began with, down to the sofa and coffee table, and especially in the calmer, more relaxed atmosphere. The red livery of BBC News is replaced with a more morning-friendly orange, just as the previous “Breakfast News” used to substitute blue for pink.

 

Breakfast television took until 1983 to begin in the UK because it took a long time to establish that an audience would be there to watch it – as programmes for schools took up the later mornings on BBC One and ITV, regular television didn’t often start until lunchtime. Even now, breakfast television in the UK is still a minority pursuit, attracting only between five and six million viewers across all channels at 8.00am, while eighteen million are listening to the radio at that time – Zoë Ball’s BBC Radio 2 breakfast show has a greater audience than for all of television.


Sunday, 11 April 2021

I’M AN ORDINARY MAN [291]

Original 1985 release - the orange tint is to indicate the energy of the music 

I have been attempting to write a song, an entry for a competition, and I decided to write what I know: it is titled “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You,” and crams in as many nostalgic references I can while still rhyming – Stephen Sondheim once said you should not leave half-rhymes in your songs, at the danger of giving your audience a fraction of a second of doubt. I also add in lines like, “if hauntology is your pathology,” and “if your kind of place is a liminal space.” For someone who has never properly attempted to write a song before, the result most definitely sounds like only I wrote it.

Naturally, the musical arrangement needed to be based in the 1980s. To that end, I used a Yamaha Reface DX, with its “LegendEP” preset evoking their DX7’s famous “Piano 1” sound, and constructed a drum track using sampled sounds from a LinnDrum machine, most famously used by Prince on the “1999” and “Purple Rain” albums – the drum line on “Let’s Go Crazy” sounds so much like a ticking clock, only a LinnDrum was going to be appropriate.

 

In learning how best to construct a 1980s pop sound, I found myself copying what Orson Welles did ahead of directing “Citizen Kane” – just as he watched John Ford’s film “Stagecoach” forty times, I wound constantly listening to tracks from a defining Eighties album, almost an archetype for the sound of that decade: “No Jacket Required,” by Phil Collins.

 

Released in 1985, “No Jacket Required” was Collins’s third solo album, but while his previous albums yielded, for me at least, one identifiable hit each – “In the Air Tonight” from 1981’s “Face Value,” and the Supremes cover “You Can’t Hurry Love” from “Hello, I Must Be Going!” (1982). His first US number 1, “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now),” was made separately for a film soundtrack. 

 

“No Jacket Required” had three hits I knew straight away: “Sussudio,” “One More Night” and “Take Me Home,” with a fourth that was used as a B-side, “Only You Know and I Know,” becoming a firm favourite, along with “Who Said I Would,” which sounds a little like “Sussudio” in the same way that “Sussudio” sounds like Prince’s song “1999”: you can hear the influence there. Collins had deliberately made a more dance-oriented album than before, in order to take himself out of his comfort zone, something that appears not to have been repeated, except with his next album back with Genesis, “Invisible Touch”.


2016 reissue cover


The five songs I mentioned all use FM synth keyboards, most obviously the Yamaha DX7 used on “One More Night” and “Take Me Home,” with arpeggiators filling in the sound like a rhythm guitar would in a band, and a punchy keyboard-based bass on “Sussudio.” The fuzz of analogue synthesis is replaced by the more glass-like polish of FM synth, which changed the overall sound of pop music until the advent of General MIDI and sample-based synths at the end of the decade. Despite its distinctiveness, it immediately dates any song made using these sounds, and creating a mood and moment from which nostalgia can be drawn when used again by other artists in the future (I hope).

 

There are also the distinctive sounds of certain drum machines: on “One More Night,” Collins programs the Roland TR-808, whose synthesised sound is so distinctive it gave its name to a group (808 State), and an album (Kayne West’s “808s and Heartbreak,” which uses it on every track). The other songs use the more sample-based LinnDrum and Roland TR-909, the hand claps of the latter being very prominent on “Take Me Home,” this song also demonstrating Collins’ use of these machines as a basis on which to provide more intricate drum arrangements.  

 

Most importantly for me, the deluxe edition of “No Jacket Required” includes demo versions of “Only You Know and I Know,” “One More Night” and “Take Me Home.” Having also heard the demo of “Sussudio” elsewhere, these works-in-progress show that Phil Collins essentially improvised what is still his most successful album and, with over twenty-five million copies sold, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. He laid the drums, switched on the arpeggiator, and poked out some chords from his DX7 – Collins’s liner notes for the album say, “I’m a lousy keyboard player, but I can make what I like to think is a ‘nice noise.’” He sings the melody for each song, but the words are not there yet, so he almost sings in tongues, with snatches of Ehglish, anything to get the melody recorded. But this is where the lyrics ultimately appeared: the line “One More Night” was improvised while listening to the rhythm of the TR-808, while the non-word “Sussudio” turned out to be a happy accident, prefaced in the completed song by “just say the word.”

 

It was heartening to hear how these songs turned out to be more spontaneous and personal than you think the mainstream music industry would allow. It certainly made me feel happier about my own efforts at writing a song. All I need to do now is see if I can sing a C sharp above middle C. 

Sunday, 4 April 2021

RETURN TO SENDER, ADDRESS UNKNOWN [290]




Here was the idea I had:

After nearly five years, I had reached the conclusion that I could use a website address that was shorter than www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com, ideally one that used my name. This was compounded when, after describing what I wrote to someone at work, I had to write out the site address for them, instead of confirming what top-level domain followed my name, whether it was .com, .co.uk or .net. I could also do with getting some business cards printed, but that can follow later. For the record, this is not because I am phasing out “Dancing with the Gatekeepers” from my site – if something like that comes to you in a dream, you use it, and you keep it.

 

Here is where we are now:

 

I am now the owner of the address leighspence.net - entering this into your web browser will redirect you to www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com. I chose the top-level domain .net, one of the first such domains to be introduced on 1st January 1985, because of the hard T sound making it clear to anyone who asks for my website. (The other six domains introduced onto the internet on the same day were .com, .org, .edu, .gov, .mil, and .arpa, as in “Arpanet,” the predecessor of the internet.)

 

As convenient as this sounds, the original plan was to have leighspence.net as the main address, and www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com would be retained as a redirecting address. I hadn’t realised how that wouldn’t work.

 

I am sure that, if you have read any of my articles before, it is more because you have seen a link to it on Google, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, rather than going straight to the website. I thought that, as I own both addresses, you could have the individual weblinks, or “metalinks,” for each individual article, remain under www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com, while future articles would use leighspence.net in their metalinks.

 

That was naïve. Instead, changing the main address for the website broke the connection for five years of existing links, which is when I realised that these were the more important web addresses of them all.  I could have added the new address to the metalinks, but there are nearly three hundred of them, and any connections they have made with anyone will be broken by this action – it would be like rebuilding the connections I have made from scratch, and I am not prepared to do that. 

 

What I am left with is the remnants of a good idea. I guess I could copy across my work to a new website that uses leighspence.net, but that would also be starting from scratch. I don’t honestly know what the best option would be. Does anyone have any ideas? 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

I WANT MY MTV [289]


Sunday 1st August 2021 marks forty years since MTV launched with an opening sequence comparing its innovation, playing musical promo videos around the clock, with the Apollo 11 moon landings. 
 

But that innovation has long since evaporated, just as the words “Music Television” has from under its logo: MTV is now a parade of reality shows, a genre admittedly pioneered by them with 1992’s “The Real World,” its original programming shunted off to automated sister channels which, in the UK, includes names like “MTV Hits,” “MTV Base,” and the infuriatingly tautological “MTV Music.”

 

The usual explanation given for this shift was the advent of online streaming of video content from around the 2000s, initially with MySpace, and especially with YouTube. This fits with personal experience: I only had a direct subscription to MTV from 1999 to 2002, and what non-musical shows there were numbered few: there was “Jackass” and “The Real World,” but “The Osbournes,” the show that precipitated the shift away from the music, had not launched yet. Whenever I saw MTV after then, the character of the channel had moved away, although watered-down substitutes like TMF and Viva existed for a while.

 

However, it was when watching “I Want My MTV,” a September 2020 entry in the A&E Network’s “Biography” series of documentaries, that I began to realise why this shift has happened, and why MTV is no longer a part of it. Towards the end of a feature-length look at how young TV executives attempted to start a revolution in television on a miniscule budget, and how it struggled to convince record companies to make videos for their songs, the documentary concluded that the channel’s audience wanted to see itself on television, not just have somewhere that catered to them – this is perfectly reflected in the reality shows that followed like “Jersey Shore,” “My Super Sweet 16,” “The Hills” and “Catfish.”

 

What became clearer to me is that MTV had begun as a creative outlet of one, which has now been supplanted by a multitude of outlets. The initial videos shown on the channel were often by bands that were proactive in creating their own videos, adding individual style to a genre sprouting from the necessity of providing a stand-in if the artists could not appear on a TV show in person: I knew that The Police shot their video for “Message in a Bottle” in a dressing room between engagements, but I did not know that Devo turned down stand-up ads of themselves in shops to use that money to shoot the “Whip It” video. The most surprising of these was REO Speedwagon noticing the potential of MTV before their record company, readying videos of four songs in time for its launch. 

 

Add in to this the ever-changing stream of channel idents, left to the freedom of animators and designers to create as they wished, and the message was clear: if you had what MTV was looking for, you stood a very good chance of appearing on it. The sense of ownership generated by the slogan “I Want My MTV,” created as a campaign to get cable providers to sign up to the channel, was only needed for those wanting to sit back to watch the results. 

 

One genre of songs that has disappeared from the UK charts has been the comedy record, which I argue is because the impetus to create something like this is more easily completed through the mechanics of placing the song, or the video of the song, onto social media or YouTube, instead of submitting it through the traditional route of record companies and record pressing plants – the faster you can get something out, the better, especially while the joke’s still funny. 

 

If that immediacy can now be applied to anything creative, so why wait for it to funnel through the established structures of network television before it can be seen? No wonder we went elsewhere.