Sunday, 31 May 2020

MAKE A BIG NOISE PLAYING IN THE STREET [242]


The Commodore 64 is generally agreed to have the best sound of any 8-bit computer released in the 1980s, and its Sound Interface Device (SID) chip is one of the most distinctive sound chips made for any computer. This is borne out through games like “Last Ninja 2,” “Bubble Bobble” and Elite’s “Commando,” and through the sampling of speech found in games like the “Ghostbusters” and “Impossible Mission”: “Another visitor. Stay a while... stay forever!” 


The C64 is sought out as a music synthesiser in its own right, and the SID chip is default sound that an 8-bit computer makes – considering Commodore sold seventeen million of them before they went out of business in 1994, that isn’t much of a surprise. What makes that sound so distinctive, and the SID chip so versatile, tends not to be questioned as a result.


In its simplest form, an analogue synthesiser, made by companies like Moog, Yamaha and Korg, creates a sound using a wave generated by an oscillator, which is then filtered and shaped to create different effects. The sound chips found in most 8-bit computers do not contain oscillators, relying instead on having an oscillating signal fed into it from elsewhere. For this reason, while you can still create different sounds by programming the attack, decay, sustain and release of the sound – known as ADSR, or the sound envelope - the sound itself is a uniform pulse wave, known as a “square wave” because of how it looks on an oscilloscope. Square waves are responsible for the stereotypical “beep boop” sound of an old computer.


Most 8-bit computer companies used one of two off-the-shelf sound chips, making them all sound similar: one chip was the Texas Instruments SN76489, as used in their own TI-99/4A, the BBC Micro, Tandy 1000, the Sega Master System, Game Gear and Mega Drive; the other chip is the General Instrument AY-3-8910, as used in some Sinclair ZX Spectrum models, the Amstrad CPC range, the MSX computer standard, and the original 16-bit Atari ST. Both chips have four sound channels: one to generate white noise, which you could use for rhythm, and three square wave tone generators. 


Meanwhile, Commodore designed and made their own processor chips, including for sound. The SID chip’s designer, Robert Yannes, was a musical hobbyist who wanted to create a high-quality instrument within a computer. However, some of the most sought-after characteristics of the chip came as a result of meeting a deadline. 


The SID chip had its own oscillator, but not only could it create a square wave signal, but it also could produce sawtooth and triangle waves as well as white noise, putting the chip among proper analogue synthesisers. Originally, this oscillator would have served as many as thirty-two channels, but time constraints led the work completed on the first channel to be copied, for a total of three channels, each with its own oscillator. Each channel can therefore be programmed to produce their own sound, using different wave forms, or they can be locked together. Each channel also had its own ring modulator, to produce additional effects, and their own separate ADSR controls built into the hardware, instead of attempting to replicate it through programming. Settings could also be switched almost instantaneously through programming, making it sound like you had more than three channels to play with. The SID chip also had its own filter to add in further effects. In other words, this was uncharted territory.


The C64 went on sale in 1982 at a price of $595. At the same time, the electronics shop Radio Shack sold, for $499, the Realistic Concertmate MG-1, an analogue synthesiser keyboard made for them by Moog. The MG-1 can only play one note at a time, with polyphony available as an effects option. The oscillators in the MG-1 were less versatile, assigned to certain effects that could be completed by any of the SID chip’s oscillators. The MG-1 has one overall ADSR envelope, when the SID chip has one for each channel. Radio Shack catalogues in 1983 still sold the MG-1 for $499 – the C64 could be found for $199 by the end of that year.


Adventurous programming of the C64 led to the discovery that the SID chip could be made to reproduce samples, often used for recordings of speech. Exploiting imperfections in the manufacture of the chip, and a bias in the sound output, you could create an effect that could effectively be used as a fourth sound channel, although one that was used sparingly due to the intensive processing power required. This is why the original SID chip, code number 6581, is more highly-prized: when the cost-reduced Commodore 64C was released in 1986, the new SID chip (8580) had been refined, making the effect quieter. Modern recreations of C64 hardware usually have to accommodate for which version of the chip people wish to use.


I had originally looked at all of this when The C64, a full-sized emulator of the original 1982 machine, was released in 2019. When faced with the decision of learning Microsoft Basic 2.0 to program the virtual SID chip, or learning my scales, I opted for a Yamaha synthesiser instead. While you can replicate an 8-bit computer sound using an analogue synthesiser, or a digital recreation of one, there is a certain timbre to the sound of a SID chip that means you need to seek out the real thing – many people do, judging by the £40-50 price commanded on eBay for just the chip, let alone an entire C64.


After leaving Commodore, Robert Yannes set up his own keyboard company, Ensoniq – the digital oscillator chip from its Mirage sampling synthesiser, which contained the thirty-two sound channels Yannes originally wanted in the SID chip, made its way into the Apple IIGS computer, causing The Beatles’ record label Apple Corps to sue Apple Computer for breaking their legal agreement not to enter the music business.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

WHATEVER IT IS I’M AGAINST IT [241]


Warning: I came across something that made me think of the eternal British phrase, “you what?!”


I am currently on my third iPad since 2012, and outside of working at home or writing, which I do with a desktop computer, the iPad is my main computer. Because its graphic processor is superior to my bigger machine, my iPad is also my video editor, cutting shots by fractions of a second using the swipe of a finger. 


For these reasons, and because my desktop computer has a keyboard with proper keys, I have never owned a laptop computer. I have not yet encountered the need to take a computer from one place to another, proving how much flexibility I expect of my phone – my iPad has never left the house because I know how much it costs. Whenever I have used another person’s laptop, I either find the trackpad too fiddly, requiring me to plug in an external mouse, or I have tried to press something on the screen, only to realise my error. It does sound odd, but that is just how I work.


What I can’t understand is the release of keyboards for the iPad that include a trackpad. The first iPad went on sale in 2010, and anyone that needed to continue with a separate keyboard and mouse, or are not in a position to use a touch screen, will have found their own solution by now – I’m guessing this is Apple’s way of mopping up anyone that wants both a tablet and a laptop, but not one of each, although the combined cost of an iPad plus a Magic Keyboard, whether it includes a trackpad or not, passes the cost of many laptop computers.


Doesn’t a tablet computer also come with a trackpad the size of the screen? I can see Apple’s Magic Keyboard supports the gestures you would usually make on the screen, like using two fingers to zoom in or out of a web page or other object, but having the trackpad there does not instantly tell you to use that instead of the screen. Placing your finger on the trackpad, or moving a mouse creates a small blue circle on the screen, like a target on the old game show “The Golden Shot,” but again, you could point straight at the target.


There has been a great amount of convergence in technology over the last few decades, as evidenced by few people having a camera separate from their phone, or a television that does not access the internet. But adding a cursor to the screen of an iPad suggests a couple of threads are being unpicked. The primacy of the finger, over a stylus in operating an iPad was already challenged by the introduction of an electric Apple Pencil in 2015, in the name of productivity apps like Adobe Photoshop. Perhaps you can use your fingers at home, but not at work, just like you expect an expensive restaurant to provide you with a knife and fork.


I don’t know what point I want to make, as this is my reacting to something that doesn’t sound right, but what helps others to work changes how I would work, so therefore, I’m not doing it.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

TWO PLUS TWO IS FOUR [240]



The money may be in place, but no-one is ready. The will is there, but the star pulled out. If it doesn’t happen now, the chance may be gone. “Development Hell” is synonymous with the hoops a film has to jump through to be made, let alone released. It doesn’t surprise me that Warner Bros. has been trying to make a live-action “Akira” film since 2002, or that Terry Gilliam essentially handed over two decades of his life to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” directing other films until he could start again. The saga of Richard Williams animating “The Thief & Cobbler” for thirty years before financiers seized control is its own tragic tale.


The “Fantastic Four” series of films is a prime example of Development Hell, mainly because Bernd Eichinger, the German film producer of “The Neverending Story,” and later “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” as well as the “Resident Evil” films, obtained the film rights to the Marvel Comics characters in 1983, but it would not reach the screen until 2005. A sequel, “Rise of the Silver Surfer,” would be released in 2007, before it was decided to reboot the franchise, which itself was not seen until 2015. A second reboot is now in development after Disney bought 20th Century Fox, which was in control of the rights by then.  



Of course, this summary is not that simple. Bernd Eichinger originally had to start making a “Fantastic Four” film before 1992 ended to avoid losing the rights. With no stipulation on what the budget had to be, Eichinger partnered with the producer Roger Corman to produce an adaptation, filming for between twenty-one and twenty-five days, for just one million dollars. While Corman’s reputation is for low-budget productions, they were also completed at high speed, and his ownership of a studio in Venice, California (converted from a lumber yard) made this easier still.


As an adaptation of the comic book, the “Fantastic Four” film that was completed is perfect. Everything, and everyone, looks correct, the characterisation is spot on, and the plot is suitably melodramatic: it is the origin story, with Doctor Doom, Alicia Masters, and the Jeweler, a new villain that stole a diamond vital for Reed Richard’s ship, causing the accident that became the first Marvel mutations. The special effects are cheap and cheesy, but get the job done, and would have been perfectly fine if this had been a television pilot instead of a feature film. The production only spends as long on scenes and emotions as long as it needs, needing only ninety minutes to tell a story that could not afford the space to breathe.



Oley Sassone, a music video director and fan of “The Fantastic Four” since childhood, recreated the book faithfully. Crucially, David and Eric Wurst, composers of the film’s music, paid $6,000 of their own money for an orchestra to perform its few musical passages lending a respectability to the production that was never intended.


It is not clear whether “The Fantastic Four” was ever going to be released, or if that was a decision made after it was completed. Stan Lee had appeared on set to inspect filming, and called the actor Alex Hyde-White, paid $3,500 a week to play Reed Richards, the person he envisaged playing the character. However, the planned premiere was cancelled, and the cast were given cease-and-desist orders to stop talking about it. Roger Corman had a contract to release the film, and had to be bought out of it. The film was reportedly sold by Bernd Eichinger to Marvel executive Avi Arad, who had prints of it destroyed like it was “Nosferatu.”


In an example of the Streisand Effect, “The Fantastic Four” is readily available on bootleg DVDs, as well as online. Those that made the film seemingly won’t ever get royalties for a proper release, but they made a film that was intriguing enough to seek out, something that has not since been said of the films that actually did get released.


Wednesday, 20 May 2020

A PINCH OF SALT AND LAUGHTER TOO [239]



When I first saw the short film “Too Many Cooks,” I thought it was a straightforward parody of the endless parade of smiling faces that make up the opening title sequences of American sitcoms, bleeding into police procedurals, Saturday morning cartoons, and prime-time soap operas. However, I didn’t know why the sitcom elements were as psychotic as they were portrayed.


In the 1990s, British TV’s main night for comedy was Friday, but the shows with staying power was more adult, leftfield fare like “Shooting Stars,” “Father Ted,” or “Have I Got News for You,” or big American imports like “Friends” or “Frasier.” Family sitcoms were becoming less of a thing, outside of shows like “Last of the Summer Wine,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” and the obviously named “2 point 4 children.” There had been ITV’s “The Upper Hand,” and the short-lived “Married for Life,” but these were British versions of “Who’s the Boss?” and “Married with Children” respectively.


Meanwhile, American TV had “TGIF,” the name given to ABC’s Friday parade of family sitcoms about large families: “Full House,” “Family Matters,” “Growing Pains,” “Step by Step” and so on. From these, only some of “Step by Step” was ever shown on mainstream British TV, but mainly because one of its stars, Patrick Duffy, was known from “Dallas.” British sitcoms were usually never bigger than “2 point 4 children” in size, and never engaged the same cloying, sentimental tone of “Full House,” or the insane plots of Steve Urkel in “Family Matters” (which yielded a funny “Key & Peele” sketch where the show’s star, Reginald VelJohnson, is portrayed as lamenting how his show was ruined by the Urkel character).



Having seen how the “TGIF” sitcoms open, you feel there must have been a set of guidelines – views of the city in which the show is set, shots of the family acting like a family is already known to act, and characters interrupting what they are doing to look directly into the character, in an impression of sincerity, with their name appearing in yellow text. The yellow text is apparently crucial: “Family Matters” used it first, with others following, but “Full House” used white text in their opening titles for five years before changing it to yellow, at the same time asking their actors to look into the camera, instead of slightly off into the distance.


In terms of the killer featured through “Too Many Cooks,” and the disease that gives everyone their on-screen titles, I have since this realised this is included for more than just providing a plot. The sitcom parody is executed so well, you need something to remind you it is a parody, especially as it was originally being played out at 4am: Adult Swim has an “Infomercials” block that is given over to, well, parodies of infomercials, while also occasionally satirising other types of TV programmes – in order to keep its audience watching, infomercials are already parodies of “proper” shows. Once such “Infomercial,” titled “A Message from the Future,” is based around an election campaign for a post-apocalyptic world leader, including one who is “pro-choice” on eating pets – the psychosis remains, but the setting is different.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

THE FEELING IS GROWING, SO LET’S KEEP IT GOING [238]



There exists a song, released in 1968, where the chorus is all about bringing everyone together, and pushing the country forward, but the verses talk of working half an hour longer each day without extra pay, buying British cars and going on holiday in Blackpool. Sung by the all-round entertainer Bruce Forsyth, and written by Petula Clark’s usual songwriters Tony Hatch & Jackie Trent, it is titled “I’m Backing Britain.”


With that title, the song could have been the relic of a Government campaign fronted by Forsyth. It sounds like the essence of Matt Monro’s “We’re Gonna Change the World” has been synthesised and condensed, with the satire removed, and I can’t imagine the British public went along with what was being asked of them. It turns out the campaign that mounted behind the slogan disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, in a matter of weeks.


“I’m Backing Britain” snowballed from the efforts of five company secretaries working for a heating and ventilation company in Surbiton: the Colt Group, whose headquarters are now based alongside their main factory in Waterlooville, were instrumental in the post-war rebuilding effort, designing and constructing ventilation systems for prefabricated houses that removed the need to build fireplaces. The secretaries - Christine French, Carol Ann Fry, Brenda Mumford, Joan Southwell and Valerie White – received a memo from the company’s marketing director, Fred Price, that gave them the idea of starting work half an hour early each day, to boost productivity. The Surbiton head office voted to begin on 29th December 1967, two days after the memo was written. The Waterlooville factory later decided to work their extra half hour at the end of the day. As other companies took up the idea after hearing about it over the following weekend, the five Colt secretaries, along with Alan O’Hea, the company’s managing director, created a slogan, “I’m Backing Britain,” and placed an order for a hundred thousand badges to hand out to other businesses. At this point, it had only just reached New Year’s Day 1968.

The single was pressed in different places, and Bruce 
Forsyth's surname was spelt incorrectly on all of them.


If the Government weren’t planning a campaign to increase productivity, they needed one, and approved of the one served up for them. Fred Price’s 27th December memo, mainly a company progress report, also paraphrased a letter published in “The Times” two weeks earlier, in which the MP John Boyd-Carpenter suggested how the United Kingdom could reduce the massive deficit created by the gap between imports and exports, which had led to the devaluation of the Pound. Boyd-Carpenter’s solution was to suggest the first Saturday morning of the month could be used to set an example, using the equipment that would have remained idle over the weekend. Price modified this to suggest an extra half-day is added to the working week, before the Colt secretaries chose to make their existing work days longer instead. In response to the growing sentiment, a press conference attended by Britain’s three main political parties backed “I’m Backing Britain” on 5th January 1968, one week after Colt’s longer days began.


The campaign was a gift to the media, which spread it further. The “Daily Express” ran a story on the Colt secretaries on 30th December, while the “Daily Mirror” ran editorials welcoming the campaign from 3rd January, the same day an advertisement in “The Times” was run by an ad agency offering their spare time to create ads for the campaign. This was when Pye Records stepped in: the promotional record made by Tony Hatch, Jackie Trent and Bruce Forsyth, who reduced their usual fees to participate, was released on 8th January, costing two thirds of the usual cost of a seven-inch single. However, “I’m Backing Britain” never charted, selling fewer than eight thousand copies. The record was made so quickly the singer’s surname was misspelt as “Forsythe” on the label. 



The campaign looked bizarre, as people suddenly began waving their flag for their country, often literally with flags supplied by the campaign’s office, but it became uncomfortable for some. It insinuated that people were not being as productive as they could be, and should work longer, without compensation, to make up for that fault. Unions were upset by this, but the fervour generated by the campaign meant they could be seen as obstructing patriotism. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had already criticised people who complained that others were not pulling their weight in a speech on 8th January, only three days after the Government became involved.


The campaign began to unravel during February. On 12th February, workers at Colt voted to return to their standard work schedule – the unions present there had been strained, and the Colt secretaries ironically had their work interrupted by their running the campaign. Only three days earlier, the Post Office had started using an “I’m Backing Britain” postmark on millions of letters, stopping on 29th February. Colt had passed on the running of the campaign to the Industrial Group (now the Work Foundation) during January, but when it was wound up, at the end of September, they were only sending out promotional material. The MP and book publisher Robert Maxwell attempted a concurrent “Buy Britain” campaign from the outset, later amended to “Sell British, Help Britain, Help Yourself,” but the protectionist campaign unravelled when it was discovered his promotional T-shirts were made in Portugal.


By 1969, “I’m Backing Britain” was forgotten as a campaign, leaving relics strewn about the place, especially the badges and the Bruce Forsyth song, which can be found on eBay. The Beatles song “Back in the USSR” originally began as a satire of the campaign, before being refocussed following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czecholslovakia. However, for a campaign later derided as an over-patriotic aberration, it has an ironic link to “Dad’s Army”: the first episode, filmed on 15th April 1968, and broadcast on 31st July, begins in “the present day,” with Captain Mainwaring as chairman of Walmington-on-Sea’s “I’m Backing Britain” campaign, reminding viewers of a time when everyone backed Britain. The studio audience then laughed loudly as the Nazi arrows in the opening titles moved Britain back home, puncturing the hubris.

"Made in New Zealand"

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

DON'T FORGET THE SILLY WAY WE MET [237]



This is a transcript for the latest "Gatekeepers" video:

Hello there, so yes, this is another video about “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” but not one that is here to tell you how bad it is.

You may have already chosen to watch based on the film’s notoriety as one of the worst films of all time, either seeking confirmation of this, or to enjoy that consensus being recounted one more time, about how the film’s conception was based on a bet, how the camera could only record thirty-five seconds of film at a time, and how John Reynolds played Torgo with this satyr legs on the wrong way round, giving him massive knees.

This is not that video, as it has been done too many times: I am interested in how easy it is to use the film to tell that story.

When making a video about a film, you must make sure your work does not infringe another person’s copyright. If you are reviewing a film, you cannot simply recount the story – not only would your video be derivative, someone could choose to watch your work instead. This is why you simply can’t claim “fair use” for review purposes, or use long passages without changing their context.

With “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” you have none of these concerns, as the film is considered to be in the public domain. I can do what I want – show the whole film, cut it into bits, rearrange the scenes, or show it upside down, and I won’t need to worry about any repercussions.

However, note that I said “considered.” Under American copyright law, “Manos” is in the public domain because there is no copyright notice included on the film, regardless of whether the producers applied for copyright or not – the same is true of “Night of the Living Dead.” “Charade,” the comedy mystery starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, is in the public domain because Universal forgot to add the word “copyright” to their notice, or a “c” in a small circle. This rule was removed from 1978 to protect unpublished or unregistered works made from that year on.

However, just as you can’t reuse the music from “Charade” without permission, the script of “Manos” is copyrighted, so you can’t remake the film word for word. Likewise, the restored Blu-ray edition of “Manos,” using the original negative, is a copyrighted work, hence why I am using a version that appears to have been stored in a ditch. A copyright application is pending on the phrase “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” placed by the son of the scriptwriter.

For the record, I would like to make a video delving into the film of “Myra Breckinridge,” so if 20th Century Studios or Disney are listening, please reply to my request to use footage for the video. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said I will be calling it the worst film ever made.

Thanks for watching, as ever the nostalgia culture crisis continues at www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

WHERE ARE YOU COMING FROM [236]



Finding out the band you have become a fan of does not exist is both frustrating and rare. Two music videos and one album exist, but no singles were released, few articles were written about them, apparently no interviews were taken, and no Wikipedia page has been made. And yet, “Dog Police,” by Dog Police, has become a cult classic album, rereleased twice in the last ten years, and the title track’s video is known widely, nearly spawning a TV show.


But there is no Dog Police, not at first. Understanding what it was, and how it came to be, involved joining many dots, but it made my new-found love of their songs even greater.


Starting with “Dog Police,” the video from the song, album and band of the same, we have a novelty song about someone’s girlfriend being wanted by the Dog Police, using a New Wave sound and temperament similar to Devo and The B52s. Taking place in a club, it features the band both as themselves on stage, and as the Dog Police, with trenchcoats, fedoras and prosthetic dog faces. 



Perhaps the lyrics are not meant to make much sense, but the bass and synthesisers hook you along towards the explosive sound of the chorus, punctuated by barking in time: “Dog Police, where are you coming from / Dog Police, nobody knows who you are!” These lines are adapted from the “Spider-Man” segments from the children’s TV show “The Electric Company,” but are performed like a bombastic, sped-up version of the “Dragnet” theme. It is infectious, strange, unforgettable, and nightmare fuel to the wrong people. This video would be later optioned by NBC for a possible TV series, with one pilot film, again featuring people in dressed as dogs, notoriously featuring actors Adam Sandler and Jeremy Piven before anyone knew who they were.


Underneath this video on YouTube was another Dog Police video, “1-800,” satirising mail order ads and the products they sell, using a phone as an instrument through playing the DMTF dialling tones. While not parodying a song, both the video and song play more like a Weird Al Yankovic piece. Both “1-800” and “Dog Police” feel like they come from an alternate universe where satirical songs became the norm, like John Lennon imagined when writing “Taxman” and “Paperback Writer.” 


Then there is the “Dog Police” album. Alongside the title track and “1-800,” there is a heavy, pessimistic dirge titled “Positive Reinforcement,” while a vocoded robot sings “Happy,” and a woman fronts “I’m Butch.” The band plays with their surroundings and expectations in both “Music and “In The Studio,” while they attempt to become Manhattan Transfer with “Are You Middle Class Enough?” The last track is a frantic, bouncy anthem named “Reproduce,” with lines that cut to the chase extremely fast, becoming my favourite song of the lot: 


“Don’t be despaired / There isn’t time enough / Why we are here / Is very simple stuff / Why are we doing / What we are doing? / Are we wooing / Only for screwing? / We’re only here to reproduce! / That seems to be our only use.”



What I get from the “Dog Police” album is how the band is very forceful and fast, having mastered their instruments: there are intricate bass and piano lines, with not a single note out of place. They will sound the same if they played live. The lyrics are very cynical and sarcastic, flippant to the point of providing accidental insight: a refrain to “Music” is “stick it in your ear,” reducing all music to product to be consumed, but also becoming a rallying call to do just that.


There is an infectious energy to Dog Police that attracted me immediately – it reminds me of Paul D. Millar, a Texas-based artist who records as Slugbug, similarly providing satirical songs in a New Wave mould through albums like “Truck Month” and “Pointless Journey,” which are available on the music streaming site Bandcamp [link]. 


However, like vaporwave, another genre found in abundance on Bandcamp, Dog Police almost comes across as a found object with no clear origin. With no easily obtainable evidence about its source, or about what happened after it was made, it appears to have just, well, appeared.


According to the database site discogs.com, the “Dog Police” album was released in 1982 on the Music Masters Ltd label, but I have also heard it was produced and distributed privately in 1985. The songs are written by Tony Thomas, Tom Lonardo and Sam Shoup, who also produced the album with engineer Andy Black, but the band used pseudonyms – “Clark Radio” on keyboards, “Random Ax” playing guitar, bass and trumpet, and “Squeek Owens” on drums. “Butchie Cox” and “The Rocks” also help with vocals. However, we know that Thomas, Leonardo and Shoup are “Clark,” “Squeek” and “Random,” because they appear in the videos. All three are classically-trained musicians, have worked both in commercial music and arrangers and session musicians for other artists. They have been part of the jazz music scene in Memphis, Tennessee for over forty years as The Tony Thomas Trio, releasing the albums “LST,” “Progreso” and “Melodious Funk”. Were they trying a new direction?

Original album cover


You then have the videos: “Dog Police” was played on MTV, but not as part of a playlist, instead submitted in 1984 to a competition run by “The Basement Tapes,” a monthly half-hour showcase for unsigned acts, and it later played on the variety magazine show “Night Flight” on the USA Network. The video for “1-800” may have also featured on “The Basement Tapes,” but did appear in 1984 on Weird Al Yankovic’s MTV show “Al TV,” blending with the parodies played around it. 


One reason the video for “Dog Police” is remarkable is its quality. While the low-grade video and computer special effects in “1-800” is more typical for “The Basement Tapes,” “Dog Police” is shot on 16mm film by director Joe Mulherin and cinematographer Larry McConkey, later to become an accomplished Steadicam operator on major films like “Goodfellas,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “World War Z” and “12 Years a Slave.” If so much effort was spent entering a competition, you start believing this cynical band were actually aiming for the big time.


Did Dog Police just go back to being The Tony Thomas Trio when their New Wave direction didn’t work out? Was it an elaborate joke by musicians more accomplished than was demanded of them? Was it the remains of something else that never appeared? Was it another person’s idea, or even a dare? The “Dog Police” album has been released on vinyl in 2009 and 2019, and are available on iTunes and Amazon, so someone must be collecting royalties from the intrigue generated by the videos, while being wary of saying anything that might ruin the fun.


Fortunately, after days of looking for evidence, I came across episode 18 of “Contraption: The Drummers’ Podcast” [link], released in February 2020, which interviewed Tom Leonardo. Thirty-eight minutes into the detailed discussion of Leonardo’s career and influences, Dog Police is discussed: “some things never go away,” he says. The Tony Thomas Trio were attempting to record an album, being charged for studio time by engineers that were not really paying attention. In a spare moment, they were riffing an improvised chorus for what became “Dog Police,” using the “Spider-Man” lyrics. The engineer asked what they were playing, and the band said it was a little thing they were working on. The engineer asked if they could record it, right there and then. After taking ninety minutes to write more throwaway lyrics, they recorded the song. The next day, their producer asked the band if they had any more songs like “Dog Police” to record – the studio costs would be paid for them. The further songs dashed off by the band were based on observations they had at the time about themselves and the world around them, but they were of their time, particularly in terms of the music – Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police, was noted as a comparison, along with local Memphis punk bands with frantic drummers.


In the end, Dog Police was not a means to forge a career, but was a one-time opportunity, meant to last as long as the songs took to write and record, and no longer. Perhaps the videos were as well, but the time and effort spent on them makes you feel this was a more serious endeavour than it really was, no matter what anyone says. Few moments in time last this long.

2009 reissue album cover

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

I’M OK, YOU’RE SO-SO [235]



Everyone has seen Tom & Jerry – EVERYONE has seen Tom & Jerry. If you noticed that not all Tom & Jerry cartons look alike, did you care? Would you send a death threat to the director if you didn’t like how their particular Tom & Jerry cartoons were done, and why would I ask that if this hadn’t already happened?


One hundred and sixty-one “Tom & Jerry” cartoons were made from 1940 to 1967, directed by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera (1940-58), Gene Deitch (1961-62), and Chuck Jones (1963-67). Naturally, the Hanna & Barbera era is what people will imagine first when they see the characters, and it is their chase template everyone has tried to match with each new film or series.


As a child, we had a Tom & Jerry video cassette at home that presented a number of shorts in random order – mostly Hanna & Barbera-directed ones, but with some Deitch and Jones cartoons thrown in. They were not ordered by year or director, just one cartoon after the other. Much later, I would buy all the shorts on DVD, this time arranged in order of release, and you could see what happened over time: the shorts became progressively less detailed and more stylised until they stopped (Hanna & Barbera), then they became funky and weird (Deitch), then turned into Road Runner mark two (Jones). 



I was surprised to discover the general consensus is that Deitch’s cartoons, which I like for their funkiness, are the worst, with articles and videos online agreeing this is the case. I am doubtful those writing these will have seen or grown up with them, as all of Deitch’s shorts only became available on DVD in the US in 2015 – I bought mine ten years earlier, their having long remained in circulation in the UK on home video and television. If I hadn’t preferred them, I would still be more used to seeing them against the others.


Gene Deitch had been commissioned to make thirteen new “Tom & Jerry” shorts after “Munro,” a short animation about a four-year-old boy accidentally drafted into the US Army, had won an Academy Award for Animated Short Film – Tom & Jerry had done this seven times by this point. Because MGM had disbanded their cartoon unit in 1957, and had been re-releasing old films, Deitch’s shorts were produced at Rembrandt Films in Prague, (at the time still) Czechoslovakia, where Deitch had relocated to produce “Munro,” and had decided to stay. 


However, the budget constraints that smoothed out detail and simplified backgrounds in the latter Hanna & Barbera shorts, limitations the duo continued to work with in television, would also be imposed on Deitch: where “Tom & Jerry” cartoons had cost up to $50,000 per 6-10 minute short, with $1,000 going to composer Scott Bradley each time, Deitch would have only a $10,000 budget per cartoon. What is more, Deitch’s Czech collaborators had not seen “Tom & Jerry,” leading Deitch to do much of the writing and key animation poses in addition to directing.



Tom & Jerry were drawn as they had been previously, and the theme tune remained the same, but the rest was brand new. Instead of constantly running around a house, the locations changed – a haunted castle, ancient Greece, a tropical island, the Wild West, outer space. Only the title characters remain – no Spike and Tyke, no Nibbles or Quacker – and other characters like they come from a different series entirely. Any previous friendship or comradery between Tom & Jerry were gone, replaced with a tit-for-tat, David and Goliath struggle. The gags have a different sensibility - Tom is forced to drink a bottle of cola, taking on the shape of a bottle; Tom prepares to spit watermelon seeds at jerry, so his face becomes the shape of a cannon; when Jerry’s blood pressure is monitored, he inflates. Tom is whacked more than before, often from his owner or another person after something Jerry has done, or because he is simply there. The action itself is less fluid, becoming jerkier and more manic. There are no real stories, each being a succession of scenes until an end is decided. As stated in a voiceover in “The Tom & Jerry Cartoon Kit,” featuring the most impressionistic backgrounds of all the shorts, by using none, “the result may not make sense, but will last long enough for you to be comfortably seated before the feature begins.”


What probably led to the death threat Deitch apparently received was how clearly there were different decisions being made – the music was written for mood and not action, the gags weren’t the same, and Tom & Jerry still looked like someone else drew them. Deitch admitted in 2017 that they could have been better animated, and truer to the original cartoons, but the inexperience of his team, and the low budget, meant only so much could be achieved. 




However, Deitch was a cartoonist more in the modern mould – he served an apprenticeship at UPA, pioneers of a modernist limited animation style seen in “Gerald McBoing Boing” and “Mr Magoo,” and would later create Tom Terrific and Clint Cobbler when later at Terrytoons. As previously stated, Deitch had won an Oscar, and the sort of production he would make could have been anticipated - if he didn’t think the job was for him, he could have said no. On the part of MGM, they had the most financially successful cartoons of 1961-62, beating Warner Bros. for the first time. 


The death of Gene Deitch in April 2020 led to “Tom & Jerry” being the most remarked-upon work of his career, bypassing his feature film “Alice of Wonderland in Paris” (1966), his episodes of the “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat” TV series, and a twelve-minute adaptation of a book made to meet a deadline on film rights, meant never to be seen but now posted on YouTube when rediscovered in 2012 – “The Hobbit.”


MGM contracted Chuck Jones to continue producing “Tom & Jerry” in 1963, the producer that signed Deitch having left. I guess that Jones is more of a known quantity through the Looney Tuines and Merrie Melodies series, but he redesigned Tom & Jerry entirely, their dynamic is different again, the gags are different again, the music is scored differently... and everything else that was said about Gene Deitch’s version.


Sunday, 3 May 2020

WELCOME TO THE CHEAP SEATS [234]

Art: Tony (Twitter @vorratony)

With pandemic overturning routine, my listening habits have changed. Working at home, I started putting on a podcast in the background. Now furloughed, it continues to keep me company, but I don’t have to pause it to answer the phone – what is safe for work changes with where you’re working.


The “CheapShow” podcast [link], has been made by and starring Paul Gannon and Eli Silverman, respectively a radio producer and a club DJ / actor, since it began in 2015, stand-up comedian Ash Frith also appearing occasionally. Taken at face value, it is the celebratory mix of trash culture and body horror that pushes taste for the perfect laugh. Once the offended have stopped listening, the “economy comedy podcast” becomes a fun exploration of the charity shops, bargain bins, flea markets and car boot sales of Great Britain, bringing you intriguing, nostalgic and detestable items that fell through the cracks of popular culture – one man’s trash is literally another man’s treasure.


Once you have listened as much as I have – “CheapShow” is approaching two hundred episodes, at 60-90 minutes each, sometimes longer – it becomes a melange of banter, surreal world building, improvised sketches with characters created from out of nowhere, and a slamming together of language that would make Ludwig Wittgenstein think again, all supported by a strong fanbase helping to feed the show back into the culture through their own tie-in merchandise. “CheapShow” is “a chive-filled yoghurt poultice of destiny” like no other, having “blown the goose” years ago on being your standard podcast fare. 




In episode 16, from early 2016, in reply to a remark about eating a scab for research purposes, Eli delineated himself and Paul as characters: “I’m meant to be the disgusting little troll, and you’re meant to be the hapless twat.” This was back when “CheapShow” had more items per episode, and the two former stand-up comedians had not yet delved into the wider pool of scatological humour, even if the very first episode involved asking a guest to choose if they could live without their penis or their tongue. By episode 49 the following year, Paul expressed concerns that the show had become reductive through “the curse of nonsense,” after a sketch involving Hula Hoops, but he followed this by imagining a field of death involving zombie scarecrows and dogs, trained to eat chip fat, would attack Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris – a heated discussion over noodles, and a vinyl single about sex change chickens, also formed part of the same episode. Your average “CheapShow” episode should feel like its hosts are continually engaging in telling the “Aristocrats” joke, without either of them admitting they are keeping this going until they remember the punchline.


While “CheapShow” has its “economy comedy” concept, its execution answers a key question when creating new media: what it is an excuse for? The podcast Ricky Gervais did for “The Guardian” put his and Stephen Merchant’s names first, but was an excuse to introduce the funnier Karl Pilkington; “Cheers” is a sitcom set in a bar, but is an excuse to present one-act plays centred on character development, and “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers” is a series of articles and videos about various subjects, but is an excuse for me to dive into something interesting and write about it. The concept of “CheapShow” is an excuse to spin a conversation into flights of fancy madness, but the concept still directs the podcast. In a time when anyone you’ve ever heard of has a podcast, you need more than your name in the title for anyone to truly care.




I came across “CheapShow” via the work of Stuart Ashen [whose YouTube channel I discussed here: link], and “Barshens,” the comedy show made with the cook Barry Lewis, on which Paul and Eli worked as producer and co-star respectively. “Barshens” is a great example of making “timeless” content on through comedy quizzes and games, and the only YouTube channel I have seen formally end, instead of just petering out. “CheapShow” segments that also appeared on “Barshens” included “The Price of Shite,” guessing the price of items bought in charity shops, and “Off Brand Brand Off,” a blind taste-test of own-brand or knock-off food items versus the originals, while the frequent playing of board games benefitted from the existence of “Gannon’s Golden Games.”


The first episode of “CheapShow” I heard was episode 140, featuring Ashen as a guest, but I was not prepared for the onslaught: the feature-film length allows for all avenues to be explored, from arguing over how to start a show, followed by a sojourn (or tranche) into the DJ Mike Read, and Paul telling Eli to “wait my hurry,” the latest in a long line of non-sequiturs that left the two “treading on thin water,” to use an earlier one. This was followed by tasting dill pickle-flavoured crisps, a smell-based board game, and a cursed story tape from a listener’s grandfather, known only as “Derek,” bringing the house down with the attempted revelation that a child was Irish – I matched the wall of laughter that followed that as yes, we all heard that. If something makes you laugh until you cry, you keep hold of it.


What I came to like the most was the hosts’ use of language, and their eye for the obscure and ephemeral. Sure, everyone likes noodles and “Ghostbusters,” but without “CheapShow,” I wouldn’t know about the Winkie badge, comedian Roy Jay (“Spook!”), Wendy Carlos’s demented version of “What’s New Pussycat,” the life of John Meggot, and the comedian Mike Reid’s bizarre song “Freezing Cold in 89 Twoso,” which took an Italian song of gibberish made to sound like English... and sang it in English. The “Silverman’s Platter” feature, drawing upon Eli’s collection of random vinyl, has been an education, filling in gaps in my knowledge, to the extent that I may have to start seeking out some of the songs they have played, especially as they may never appear on CD or to stream online.




But the language... I rarely swear, and only do so here where needed, but I don’t routinely try to bend language, creating new words from sounds, or bashing words together. Creating its own words to use alongside the established language is something I’ve seen work only in “CheapShow” and “Red Dwarf.” I have used some of Paul’s accidental uses of words here, but this is added to Eli’s use of sounds, like the sibilance of scribbles, scrubbles, scruffage, scrummage, spoff, spooge and spunk, and teaching Paul how to use the phrase “spoff my josh off” – this later became used in a mash-up of Rick Astley songs. Upon Eli’s commenting on his odd choice of words, Paul said “helipad.”  


Then there is the language that creates life. In the most recent episode at the time of writing (number 176, “Zoltan Sucks”), Eli said, “we don’t have a character called Regina, do we? There should be a character, and she should be called Regina Fatata.” This was dismissed by Paul as “the same collection of stupid sounds that come out of your mouth.” Like Inch Man and Storytime Granddad, the character was ill-advised this time around, but characters created on the spur of a choice of words, and driven by the attitude captured with those words, plays to Paul & Eli’s strengths in improvisation – characters like Squishy Jim, Madam Ladyplops, Bobby Bollocks, Richard Brandoff, Uncle Grumbly, Leaky Ken, Precum John, Teen Yeti and in-show knock-off Adolescent Sasquatch, not to mention Paul’s shadow, Jimmy Biscuits. My observation is that the less a character says their name to assert their existence, the longer they last. 


“CheapShow” displays confidence in letting characters, sketches and situations be created and played out during the show, with Paul & Eli periodically “step out of the podcast” to make sure their heads are together, things other productions would edit out in an attempt to sound more professional, or to remove what they hadn’t attended. This has added to the enjoyment of listening back through the mountain of previous episodes, recognising the moments when long-running features like “Silverman’s Platter” and “The Sauce Report” either found their names, or arose without warning, meanwhile witnessing how the show's animosity towards Noel Edmonds, something that doesn't need explanation, came from his legally distinguishable quiz show sitcom hybrid "Cheap Cheap Cheap."


“CheapShow” has also branched out from user-generated content, through the corporeal “Tales from the Shop Floor,” to sending items into the show, and into officially unofficial merchandise – “The Unofficial CheapShow Magazine” [link] has had nine issues so far, and T-shirts and stickers have been created out of various moments from the show [link] – slips of the tongue have become T-shirts to the extent that “That’s a T-shirt” has itself become a T-shirt. 

These are things that you expect far larger TV and radio shows to have, but I can’t think of any unofficial fan-created items that are endorsed and promoted as effectively official work – it must have happened to something from “The Simpsons,” as there has been enough of it.

For me, “CheapShow” is the “Goon Show” of podcasts: the content may be cheap, but when distinctiveness and originality is free, it’s worth a try – satisfaction will soonly come.