Armagideon Time

The fail of the tape

May 26th, 2016

REEL TOO REAL:

He’s a scrappy public defender who grew up in the Lower East Side. She’s a former fashion model raised in the high society Hamptons. He goes into hysterics over Dr. Demento. She feels flushed whenever she hears Casey Kasem’s voice.

Frank and Gloria both went into to Crazy Harry’s Discount Electronics looking for a deal on a Pioneer tape deck, but ended up finding each other — but can a shared love of high end audio components overcome two wildly different backgrounds? The creative team behind Eight Track Mind are back to unspool a zany new era of romantic comedy. Even this wild new decade, love doesn’t come with a rewind button!

Starring Mark Jervis and Bambi Nightingale, with McLean Stevenson guest-starring as “Crazy Harry.” Coming to Wednesdays on NBC this fall, right after the highly anticipated Supertrain.

Stop and spin

May 25th, 2016

The fuzzy transition zones between popcultural epochs tend to be rich in bizarre experimental oddities. The “old” isn’t quite ready to give up the ghost, while the “new” is still too amorphous and unproven to qualify as a true status quo. Popcult trends are essentially consumer trends, with their temporal arcs pinned to some affiliated economic bubble and the gold rush mentality under which it operates.

Throw all this together and you end up with the almost explicable weirdness of 1983′s Mister Disc

On paper it makes perfect sense. Sony’s Walkman was single-handedly bringing about a revolution in the way people experienced music. Its success was enough to drive cassette sales into the stratosphere, despite their numerous technical and auditory limitations. If portability trumped fidelity, then it was only a matter a time before some engineering gnomes attempted to put together a device which could balance both qualities.

That device was the portable CD player, though Mister Disc made a half-hearted try to bring the glory of vinyl to the headphone-rocking masses. “Only the size of a shoe box!” boasted the advance press of an era when a pocket-sized, voice-activated supercomputer was still the stuff of sci-fi. The consensus among various sources is that the device never made it past the trade show demo days, though it did get the above mention in Billboard and images of the device — and its extremely complicated instruction manual — can be found floating around the internet.

One passage in particular from the manual effectively summed up why Mister Disc’s maladaptive hybrid was a non-starter:

See, when they said “portable” they meant in terms of carting the device around. They didn’t really intend that to be taken as being able to spin your favorite 7-inchers during your morning jog…despite heavily implying such circumstances during the initial wave of hype.

They also cautioned against spinning your records in direct sunlight, lest they warp from the heat. And to make sure you secure every last fragile moving part of the Mister Disc unit before moving it. And that they were very sorry because this seemed like a great idea on paper but couldn’t translate that into compelling reality.

(Okay, that last one was also heavily implied rather than directly stated.)

30th Century deja vu

May 23rd, 2016

The Mighty Mike Sterling recently fielded a reader question about the Legion of Super-Heroes’ decline from a fan favorite franchise to its current state of sad irrelevance. Mike did a great job breaking down the Legion’s tragic cycle of reboots and diminishing returns, which has been on my mind since I revisited those funnybooks for my February feature.

There is something that does tend to get overlooked in these discussions, as most tend to point the finger at the post-Zero Hour reset when it comes to figuring out where things went off the rails. It’s not untrue, but that do-over — and the rot that afflicted the franchise — was a direct consequence of the “Five Years Later” relaunch that preceded it.

I loved the “Five Years Later” run. It was an interesting new direction for the Legion at a time where “grim ‘n’ gritty” superhero fare still held a degree of novel edginess. This was especially true for the Legion, where the teen heroes of a (mostly) utopian future were recast as outlaw freedom fighters in a strife-ridden galaxy. The series kicked my childhood affection for the super-team into the real of dedicated fandom, especially as the stories contained numerous continuity references and Easter eggs that led me to seek out the original source material.

That said, the run suffered from numerous problems that are especially apparent when read en masse during the present day. The big plot thread — “will the Legionnaires reunite and free earth from the sinister Dominators” — was laid out from the get-go, but the requirements of sustaining an ongoing series meant there long stretches of filler between the vaguely implied progress on the main front.

On top on that herky-jerky tedium, Giffen and the Bierbaums had few qualms about hacking a bloody swathe through three decades of Legion continuity. The tally of death, mutilation, and destruction would have enough to make even Geoff Johns pause. First they blew up the moon, causing billions of fatalities, and then the followed that up with destroying Earth as well. Unlike previous Legion catastrophes, there was was no plausible route for returning to the old status quo, and perhaps that was the writers’ plan all along.

If the direction of the series felt erratic within the confines of its original metaplot, it became entirely rudderless once that story concluded. Big developments would be done, then undone over the course of a couple of issues while the creators struggled to find some compelling reason for things to continue. This was even further complicated by the decision, spurred by fans who longed for the old “teenagers in outer space” days, to spin off a companion monthly featuring the teenage not-clones of the Legion’s Silver Age incarnation. It was a move intended to please everybody, but satisfied no one.

In that light, a hard reboot of the franchise was the only workable outcome. It was a chance to start fresh, while weaving the contradictory and piecemeal elements of the Legion’s early years into something a bit more cohesive, contemporary, and inclusive. It managed to sustain its momentum for a good while, too, spanning two titles that effectively amounted to a bi-weekly series. When it began to falter, however, the decision was made to grim things up again before yet another reboot. Hell, even the most recent attempt to re-establish the pre-5YL continuity went into extremely bleak territory before DC gave up on the Legion altogether.

As Mike said, the problem isn’t reboots in and off themselves. Used strategically and sparingly, they can breath new life and spur interest in ailing franchises. Yet the “easy out” the offer presents a slippery slope. Why bother with course corrections when you can crash the fucker into the ground and start over without any entanglements? Eventually, though, you’ll end up where both Hawkman and the Legion now find themselves — saddled with so much baggage that a clean start is nigh impossible.

It’s a shame, but I think the blame the post-Zero Hour Legion gets for mucking things up should be more accurately directed by the softer reboot which preceded it and served as the franchise’s real point of no return.

There have been plenty of songs that have evoked feelings of wistful melancholy in me over the years, but few have done as effectively as Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” can.

The 1962 track was a follow up to the song and associated dance craze that put Checker on the map. As the Twist-mania spread outside teen sock-hops and into the mainstream, it was inevitable that artist and his label would try to recapture that ol’ lightning in a bottle — and they succeeded, too. “Let’s Twist Again” was a top ten hit in both the US and the UK, and earned a Grammy award along the way.

It was a top selling dance track released during the height of the fad which spawned it, yet it is also utterly devastating to my ears. Putting aside the historical context and number of units shifted, “Let’s Twist Again” is about recapturing something that has been lost.

It’s not “Let’s Keep on Twisting” or “Let’s Never Stop Twisting.” It’s not about continuing a hot streak, but trying to recapture a cherished moment that had come and gone. The song is upbeat, but Checker’s vocals took a plaintive, pleading tone where the titular imperative descends into reminders of a bygone time.

“Let’s twist again….like we did last summer. Let’s twist again…like we did last year.”

It’s the forced mirth of someone holding on to one good memory and desperately trying to re-live it.

“Oh, baby, make me know, you love me so.”

It evokes the same sort of sadness I feel whenever I re-read The Great Gatsby or watch The Wild Bunch or visit the neighborhood where I grew up — the sadness inherent in chasing phantoms while struggling to accept that what you’re seeking is irrevocably gone. Honestly, I don’t even have many regrets along those lines but the sentiment still manages to punch in me in the gut. Perhaps it’s due to my mother’s death, which neatly and decisively cleaved my internalized history along the firm boundary of “before” and “after.”

“Let’s Twist Again” is what I’d classify as a “late summer song,” most effectively suited for those weeks when the days keep getting shorter, the nights keep getting cooler, and vacation is all but over. The exhilarating possibilities of June have narrowed into the inevitable reality of September. Instead of cherishing those dwindling moments we have left, we find it easier to dwell on the memory of those that have passed.

TWISTIN’ TIME IS HEEEEEEEEERE!

BOO-OWP!

Deflationary spiral

May 19th, 2016

Some twitter pals were discussing waterbeds (thanks to this Metafilter thread) and it unearthed a childhood memory I had successfully managed to suppress for over thirty years.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the post-industrial, semi-reclaimed North Woburn wilderness was a popular dumping ground for construction, household, and industrial detritus that the city sanitation crews wouldn’t haul away during their weekly trash pick-up.

Couldn’t get rid of something? No problem! Just haul it “Down Back” and leave it to rot — or not — beneath the stands of sickly pine trees and blackberry brambles where my friends and I used to play. It had been a neighborhood tradition for decades, leading to a sedimentary state of the landscape where every odd grassy mound or strange earth formation more than likely concealed an old pile of garbage at its core.

Given the vagaries of New England weather, flooding from a long-gone tannery’s runoff channels, or local teens tearing shit up on their unregistered dirtbikes, these long submerged trashheaps would occasionally poke back up through the loamy contaminated soil. That’s how my cousin and I stumbled across some rotting sacks of arsenic one summer afternoon, and that’s also how my gang of childhood pals encountered The Waterbed.

We weren’t sure what it was at first, seeing only an weird misshapen mass rimed with soot and half covered with the disintegrating remnants of last autumns’s foliage. The grime and debris didn’t conceal its color, a translucent yellowish cream color that I’d previously only seen in the jet of pus that accompanied a thorn that had been lodged in my foot for a week.

It looked the corpse of some undiscovered species of Ediacaran megafauna, a gelatinous sac of murk that drifted across the bottom of ancient shallow seas. We gawked at it for a good while, fearing to approach too close lest it engulf one of us in a flesh-melting pseudo-pod. Finally my pal Artie approached it and poked its side with one of the spears we used to whittle from wild sumac trees.

“Aw, I know what it is! It’s an old waterbed.”

That didn’t make it any less disturbing in my eyes, as my only experience with waterbeds was as a sleazy punchline in things like Mad Magazine or risque “jiggle” sitcoms. To this day, my impressions of the “sexual liberation” era are still disproportionately shaped by Dudley Moore’s hapless swinger character in Foul Play.

All this was more than enough to inflict lasting psychic trauma, but then I had to compound it by touching the vile thing. It was not something I would’ve done on my own, for I was a squeamy child. I did it on a dare, because I was child who feared public ridicule from my peer group.

This would’ve been early spring, warm enough that the snows had melted but still chilly enough that your mom wouldn’t let you outside without a Proper Coat. The waterbed corpse had been sitting beneath a pile of frozen muck for at least three months, yet it was warm and greasy to the touch.

I can still feel the texture with my finger tips, followed by a reflexive urge to submerge my hand in a sluggish stream laced with toxic heavy metals and tannery waste.

Well, I never

May 18th, 2016

We live in an era where geeky shit is both mainstream and trendy, and mash-up nonsense is thick on the ground. So much so, that it can be difficult to recall a time when that wasn’t the norm — especially if you were born after Reagan’s reign or could never be bothered to step outside your fandom’s cultural cocoon.

It’s why I always feel a twinge of strange delight when I’m rummaging through the ruins of yesteryear and come across an oddity such as this 1987 ad…

It was a back cover buy in a prominent music mag. That would’ve been weird in itself, but the fact that the (uncredited) artist/design team nailed the aesthetic so perfectly took it to text level of ephemeral oddities.

I probably would have been more interested in Cutting Crew if the band members actually had sawblades for hands. It would’ve added an extra edge (HA!) to that whole “dying in your arms tonight” thing.

Poor Hitman has had his powers dialed back quite a bit since those days. He used to be able to shift millions of units. Now he feels lucky if he can move ten thousand. Super Virgin remains marginally active, though she has been forced to cut back her activities to a handful of Middle Eastern markets. Should you need a copy of the Furious 7 soundtrack while vacationing in Bahrain, Super Virgin can assist you…though it would probably be easier and cheaper to let the Digital Amazon take care of it.

Well, golly

May 17th, 2016

We passed in Mayberry
We spoke of Andy and Helen
Although never of Aunt Bee
Barney said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I drawled into his eyes
I thought you nipped it in the bud
So many many seasons ago

Hee haw, not me
I never lost my beanie
You’re face to face
With the Goober who sold the world

Watching Junior Samples and Nirvana perform the track live on RFD Unplugged was a life-changing moment.

Copy and delete

May 16th, 2016

Over and over again, we’ve been told that piracy was going to destroy the music industry.

Based on the following excerpt from a 1987 Billboard feature on illegal taping…

…I find myself wondering if that oft-threatened destruction wouldn’t have been for the best.

I don’t care how interesting the Nigerian list of pirated albums is. The very idea that there could ever have been a thriving market for Simply Red bootlegs is enough to justify a global extinction event.

Listen, bud

May 12th, 2016

I wasn’t expecting the Ultimate Annihilator to take the form that it did, either.

It seemed harmless enough — a trade publication ad for a late-cycle attempt to expand the mid-Eighties fitness video craze to the kiddie crowd. I probably wouldn’t have ever noticed it if not for the presence of a certain funnybook wall-crawler, back in the days when the ubiquity of the license was a sign of desperation rather than runaway success. The (likely unintended) synthesis of the funnybook hero and a product that had been a staple of Silver Age back cover ads also struck me as mildly ironic.

It took me a few moments to figure out what exactly the ad was selling. The placement in Billboard’s “kid vid” section meant that the VHS component of the package would be foregrounded, even if was essentially an edutainment pot-sweetener for pimping the current generation of “resistance band” exercise gear.

The ad was an interesting, if minor, novelty that touched upon a handful of my areas of interest. It would’ve stayed that way, if my curiosity didn’t drag me into the realm of cosmic horror. It didn’t require sneaking into Miskatonic University to skim their copy of the Necronomicon or becoming pen-pals with a Vermont retiree getting harassed by malevolent fungi.

All it took was opening Youtube in a new tab and typing in “spider-man super fit” into the search box.

Bad kidvid is awful in a way in which other media can never replicate. It operates under the the assumptions that kids are stupid as hell and have terrible taste. Those conclusions aren’t off-base, but tend to stumble over the far more complicated specifics. Kids can be dumb, but they are also pretty cagey. They will eagerly feast on garbage, but not indiscriminately. There’s a subtle and often counter-intuitive science behind what triggers the obsessive devotion reflex in children, and entire industries have formed around sussing it out.

The Spider-Man Super-Fit video blazed its own path, unleashing an hour-long fever dream which borders on avant-garde art terror. It has all the stock elements of cruddy Eighties kidvid — cheap video effects, bewildered non-actors, recycled music, and the finest voiceover work that can be purchased for a gallon of boxed wine — and yet it somehow manages to exceed the nightmare fuel quotient of its individual parts.

Perhaps it was due to the licensing, which juxtaposed the familiarity of a beloved character against a cauldron of surrealist horrors. Perhaps it was because no one involved gave a shit about anything except shifting a warehouse full of unsalable fitness gear. Or perhaps it was the extended jump rope sequence featuring grotesquely grinning mimes.

My vote is for the mimes.

Everything about the package feels like the type of gift you’d get from someone on an outlying arm of your familial constellation — a great aunt or second cousin that you’d see maybe three times a year, and mainly recognizable by the suffocating cloud of perfume which lingered for days after her visit.

“Your nana says you like superheroes,” she’d say in an overloud, nasally sing-song. “I bought this for you at Penny’s,” as she handed you an unsolicited slice of hell still sporting a clearance aisle tag.

And then you parents made you watch the entire thing — maybe even snapped a Polaroid of you being forced to use the resistance band –to make the required thank you note appear more authentic before you buried the tape at the bottom of your closet and did your best to forget it ever happened.

Mall wall fall

May 11th, 2016

Like many people, I’d always assumed that mall record store prices were based on a randomized process dictated by arcane franchise agreements and the need to pay a monthly lease.

Little did I know that the process was actually handled by some of them new-fangled com-pew-tors, running some variant of this sophisticated string of code:

160 PRINT “COMPETITOR’S PRICE FOR ITEM”
170 INPUT G
180 LET N = G*1.5
190 PRINT “OUR PRICE”
200 PRINT N

On a slightly more serious note, seeing “Camelot Music” reminded me of the short, sad existence of its northeastern sibling chain “The Wall.” There was one in the Burlington Mall, on the second floor facing a now defunct bookstore whose equally defunct name I can’t recall.

The store filled the small temporal niche between the old Music Land store where I blew all my eleventh birthday money on an Atari 2600 port of Mr. Do (which could’ve been picked up for a fiver two months later, but that’s a lifetime when you’re a kid) and the F.Y.E. where I once bought a new PS4 controller out of desperation when the mall’s EB Games didn’t have any in stock.

The Wall was a weird place, done up in a geometric minimalist moderne style somewhere between a Playmobil playset and a Montreal subway station. It felt less like an actual place than a mock-up of a music store made as a set for an art-directed late Eighties/early Nineties flick. Everything about it was designed to scream “WE ARE SERIOUS ABOUT MUSIC,” a message that was in direct opposition to its standard issue array of Current Hits and Proven Favorites.

The chain’s special gimmick was the royal blue “lifetime guarantee” sticker they’d affix to any cassette or CD purchased there. There’s still one, faded and peeling after twenty years, on the jewel case of the only thing I ever purchased there: a Men Without Hats “greatest hits” CD I picked up for Maura even though she was really looking for a digital reissue of the band’s Folk of the 80s LP. (I finally found one in Canada a couple of years ago. I don’t think she has even removed the shrinkwrap from it.)

The “lifetime” part of the guarantee only extended as far as 1998, when both Camelot and The Wall were bought out by F.Y.E’s parent company and their locations either rebranded or shuttered.

From the late Eighties through the past decade or so, any music chain doing business in the Burlington Mall had to contend with the harsh reality of having both a Newbury Comics and a Tower Records shop within walking distance at the plaza across the road. They had cheaper prices, wider selections, more space for affiliated merchandise, and a Taco Bell drive through anchoring the plaza the occupied. Why spend fifteen bucks for a “Nice Price” CD of London Calling when you could the the album *and* the newest issue of Starman *and* some Nachos Bellgrande for the same amount of coin?

At least until Tower filed for Chapter 11, Newbury Comics mutated into a Urban Outfitters/Hot Topic clone (and eventually relocated to the Mall), and Taco Bell moved its operations to a KFC in Woburn’s Four Corners district. A sad end to an era, but I’d switched to buying my music online by that point, anyhow.

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