Tag Archives: Quentin Tarantino

Songs Ruined By Pop Culture

One the of great properties of music is its ability to serve as a sort of emotional shorthand.  Songs about love or loss allow us to experience these feelings vicariously while also drawing upon our own pool of half-buried emotion.  Songs can have personal connections to us, but what I’m talking about are the broader, surface-level connections that we all feel to some degree.  Every time you hear Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” you don’t get a knot in your stomach thinking about a dark-haired girl I knew in 8th grade. But when we all hear The Beatles “Something” or Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” we all feel an approximation of the same thing.

This ability to instantly invoke feeling makes music the perfect complement to film and television shows that want to underscore and heighten their down dramatic moments.  When used effectively, the results are memorable and wonderful.  That said, there are some songs that are used a little too frequently in films/shows, turning a wonderful thing into a cheat, a lazy-shorthand for actual emotion.  Worse, there are other uses of songs in various pop culture where, even when not overused, become so iconic that the song ceases to have a life outside this one specific use.  For me, these songs are ruined.   Perhaps ruined is too strong a word, but whenever a song becomes unlistenable without conjuring up residual cultural baggage that’s what it feels like to me.  Ruined.

Don't drop that thing on your head...

Don’t drop that thing on your head…

Here are some notable songs “ruined” by pop culture:

1. “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.  Most casual music fans are probably under the impression that this is a Bob Dylan song.  “Stuck in the Middle With You” feels like a Dylan song because the song was conceived as a spoof of Dylan.  The song was released in 1972 and by 1973 reached all the way to #6 on the Billboard Music Charts. Songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan put out two more albums and then disbanded, with Rafferty going onto have moderate solo success including a hit with his 1978 song “Baker Street.”  The song probably would have remained a curiosity/answer to a trivia question had director Quentin Tarantino not resurrected the song for his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs.  The song took on a fresh, demonic connotation when Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, gleefully tortures a policeman while dancing to the track.   Now 99.99% of people are unable to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” without thinking about ears being lopped off.

2. “Gimmie Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.  The first cut off the Stones 1969 classic LET IT BLEED, “Gimmie Shelter” is an epic tour de force.  The song is notable for prominently featuring vocals from a non-Rolling Stone (singer Merry Clayton) and for tackling the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time. The song’s dark, seductive groove and “rape and murder” references make the song ideal for use in films with violent content.  So not surprisingly, the the song has been used in countless cops ‘n robbers shows and films.  I also think it’s impossible to make a film about the Vietnam War without using this and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” But the person who really ruined this song was director Martin Scorsese who has used it in not one, but three films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. It’s a great song, but it has been done to death.  For a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, I sure do think of garlic-breathed mobsters when I hear it…

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Originally released in 1986, “In You Eyes” was the first song on the second side of Gabriel’s fifth solo album SO.  Essentially a perfect time capsule of 1980’s pop, SO also famously featured the hits “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”  At the time of the album’s release, “Sledgehammer” was the bigger hit due in part to a really cool stop-motion animated music video.  But all that changed three years later when Cameron Crowe used the song in his teenage love story Say Anything… The song gained renewed attention and immortality when, near the film’s climax, John Cusack blasts the song from a boombox hoisted high over his head.  I was but a babe when Say Anything… came out, so the nostalgia is a bit lost on me, but even I can’t hear Gabriel’s song without thinking of Cusack.  The song’s been used over the years in similar context, but everybody is really just copying Crowe.

4.  “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan but covered famously by Jimi Hendrix.  Everybody agrees that Hendrix was a guitar god, and his cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is an amazing interpretation (seriously, have you heard Dylan’s version?) but much like “Gimmie Shelter” the song has been co-opted by filmmakers who use the song as a kind of shorthand for “doing drugs in ‘Nam.” The song’s use in Forest Gump is the gold standard of such use (that film is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using music as lazy shorthand).   The track’s overuse has reached the point of cliché, I actually laughed when I saw Zack Synder’s Watchmen film where the song’s use bordered on parody.

5.  “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  The title track off the George Thorogood’s 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone” was not a hit.  But within a few short years “Bad to the Bone” became the band’s most recognizable hit.  How you ask?  Because the song has been used countless time to telegraph to the audience that a certain character is a badass.  Most famously the song was used in conjunction with Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2: Judgment Day when the muscular robot first dons his iconic black motorcycle jacket.  “Bad to the Bone” was a kinda cool tough-guy song that has now been watered-down into a novelty song, thanks in part to it’s uber-level of machismo.  Today the song is now mostly used in comedies in contrast with a particularly un-tough character (i.e. a loveable loser).

6.  “What I Am” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.  The impetus for this list was the recent use of Edie Brickell’s 1988 one-hit wonder “What I Am” on HBO’s Girls. This season on the show, an ill-advised cover of the song that makes its way onto YouTube and haunts a particular character. I hadn’t thought about/heard this song in ages, but the day after I saw the first episode of Girls third season, I started noticing the song was on the radio more than in previous years.   A catchy chorus and twisty, semi-thought provoking lyrics are now rendered meaningless thanks to the series.  This is now a song about defeat and the soul-crushing reality that none of our dreams are going to come true.  Thanks Girls.

 There are countless other examples of song ruined by pop culture, Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was forever stamped by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World as was “Sweet Home Alabama” in every movie to every take place in the South (or feature Southern characters).  I’m sure just how ruined these songs are depends on your film/TV watching habits.   I’m curious to hear what songs you the reader feel have been used to death or ruined by pop culture.  Speak up in the comments section.

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WORLD PSYCHEDELIC CLASSICS #5: WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR?

One of my favorite parts of a new Tarantino film is the soundtrack.  I’m not sure how the legendary director finds time to be an expert on obscure cinema and pop music, but his films always feature interesting songs.  Besides reinventing classic hits of yesterday, Tarantino has an amazing knack for digging up forgotten gems by artists I’ve never heard of.  The Luaka Bop label does something similar, releasing a staggering assortment of amazing re-issues from grossly overlooked musicians from across the globe.

who_is_william_onyeabor_album_cover

WORLD PSYCHEDELIC CLASSICS #5: WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR? is a fantastic record.  Actually scratch that, it’s a mind-blowing record.  It’s the kind of thing that sounds too good to be true: the greatest cuts from a reclusive Nigerian funkmaster, recorded at the height of his power in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.  There’s a whole thrilling behind-the-scenes story behind this re-issue but it’s really too involved to get into here.  If you’re interested I highly suggest you check out this article on the subject at NPR’s website.  The short version is: you’ve never heard of William Onyeabor because he quit the music business to be a crazy religious zealot.

But I’m not as concerned with the man as I am with the music.   I’ll let his God pass judgment on William Onyeabor’s soul; his funk on the other hand, I can pass a fair amount of judgment.  When I first heard WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR? I thought it was a brand new album and not a re-issue.  The music sounds like a fresh, contemporary take on classic 1970’s funk.  Onyeabor’s music, while being very much rooted in funk, has a generous helping of psychedelic flourishes.  These psychedelic flourishes, along with a keen sense of innovation, is what sets this music apart from other funk recordings of the period.  The only modern equivalent to Onyeabor’s sound that I can come up with is Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.  Imagine the more playful Flaming Lips tunes covered by Funkadelic and you’re on the right path to reaching Onyeabor’s sound.

The songs are long-form grooves that ebb and flow into glorious Technicolor flourishes.  Onyeabor has a gentle, self-assured voice that helps take the sting out of his strange, droning lyrics.  The best example being on “Atomic Bomb” in which he professes that he’s going to explode like the titular bomb.  The proto-electronica/trance of “Good Name” becomes all the more hypnotic with his “nobody, nobody, nobody” chant.  While Onyeabor’s vocal-styling may not be earth-shakingly innovative, it’s really the only part of his music that isn’t.

I can totally understand how this music was overlooked globally when it was initially released—Onyeabor was clearly ahead of his time.  Check out the opening of “Let’s Fall In Love,” sure it’s rooted in late 1970’s disco but there’s a cold, computer-like quality clearly predicts the coming rise of techno music.  The layers of synthesizer and saxophone meld into something strange and beautiful.  It staggers my mind this guy was making music like this in the year 1983.  The level of sophistication on display all over WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR? makes one wonder what would have happened had Onyeabor continued to make music? There nine tracks, taken from eight albums, paint a fascinating what-if? scenario.

Definitely take a moment to listen to “Let’s Fall In Love” and “Atomic Bomb.”  Let the songs wash over you, and keep in mind that these songs, as fresh as they sound are over 30 years old.

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The Worst Cat Steven’s Cover of All-Time?

A few years back, Quentin Tarantino’s film DEATH PROOF came out (if you don’t remember it, the film came out as a double-feature called GRINDHOUSE).  Like all Tarantino flicks, DEATH PROOF had an amazing soundtrack.  I’m not sure how someone can possess so much obscure pop-culture knowledge, but Tarantino always manages to find awesome, little-heard/remembered songs that really enhance his films.  It’s a talent that fewer and fewer filmmakers seem to possess as time goes by.  DEATH PROOF uses the stupendously awesome “Hold Tight”  by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich for a particularly gruesome car crash scene.  I’d never heard of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich until this movie came out, which is pretty amazing considering I grew up on a steady-diet of classic AND oldies rock ‘n roll.

[ASIDE: Well I guess that’s only partially true,  George Harrison makes a cheeky (and fleeting) reference to the band on The Beatles Anthology 3, but I’d always thought this was a joke (come on, that name is pretty ridiculous).]

These men (or some of these men) recorded a monster.

Regardless, after I saw the movie I wanted to hear more from Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, but trying to find any of the band’s music is pretty difficult.  This despite the fact that they had several minor hits back in the mid-to-late 1960s.  I was finally able to track down a Greatest Hits compilation on Spotify, a music streaming service I reviewed a while back.  I was pretty stoked to hear more from Dave Dee & Company, so one day while at the gym  I hit “play” and settled into their trippy Who-meets-Beatles sound…I was really digging their music, when this awful sound filled my ears.  There was a terrible synthesizer coupled with an overall stomach-churning  early 1980’s production spilling out of my ear buds.

Now, it’s not uncommon for older bands to include little-heard (or appreciated) “come back” material on their Greatest Hits compilations, so while I was repulsed by what I heard, I wasn’t surprised.  But what  I thought was strange was that, despite being turgid, the song was strangely   familiar.  So familiar, in fact, that I found myself singing along with it.  How did I know this song?  Then it hit me: Cat Stevens.  Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (or more likely a band comprised of two of those people along with an accompaniment of  replacements) recorded a cover of Cat Stevens classic “Matthew & Sons” in the early 1980s! What?  What on Earth made them pick this song to cover?  And didn’t they know that disco was dead?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like Cat Stevens.  That said, I wouldn’t call “Matthew & Sons” a great or terrible song–I probably wouldn’t call it anything, it exists somewhere in between for me.  But this version, this 1980’s abomination by DDDBM&T is pretty much the worst Cat Stevens cover I’ve ever heard.  It’s terrible because it takes a decent enough song and wraps it in a shitty 80’s dance-production.  And it does all this for NO GOOD REASON.  I’m not sure what the hell the band was thinking, there was no way they were deluded enough to actually think kids were going to dance to this….song…in the clubs (right?).  I’m hoping that this song owes it’s existence to super-large mortgage debts or killer coke habits the surviving band members had.

I know there are probably a thousand really awful Cat Stevens covers on YouTube done by amateurs–but don’t you think this is the worst professional Cat Stevens cover of all-time?

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