george lucas

#772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

GETTING MORE TALE #772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

If you can believe it, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is 20 years old this year.  2019 is a significant year in the history of Star Wars.  It is the 20th anniversary of its return with the prequels, and it will also witness the final movie of the Skywalker saga in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.  Back in Record Store Tales Part 209: The Phantom Menace, I said I wasn’t “interested in contributing to the background noise” regarding the movie, but I’ve since changed my mind.  Now that George Lucas is out of the picture and J.J. Abrams is helming the finale of the sequel trilogy, it’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for 1999, when things were…simpler.

Netflix has different movies available in different countries, but you can sidestep this with some VPN software.  Some countries have no Star Wars, but between them, all of the films are available.  Bahamas is the only territory I’ve discovered so far with the first two trilogies, so I’ve been re-watching from I to VIII.  And for all its flaws, with the benefit of hindsight, The Phantom Menace is still quite enjoyable.

George Lucas had his own ideas about where to take Star Wars, but the fan hate that Phantom Menace (and the other prequels) received took the wind out of his sails.  He laid the groundwork in Phantom Menace, with that talk about the highly maligned midichlorians.  Now, midichlorians were an awful idea.  J.J. Abrams is right to leave them out of the sequel trilogy.  The idea of little microscopic organelles in your blood giving you the ability to tap into the Force?  It creates so many problems.  Like, if you have more midichlorians in your blood than someone else, does that automatically make you more powerful?  Can we therefore rank numerically every character by midichlorian count and deduce who the most powerful is?  Can you get a blood transfusion from a Jedi and steal his or her Jedi powers? That’s the kind of shit that fans hate on.  Why couldn’t Lucas leave the Force alone with all its mystery intact?

Because he was going somewhere with that.  Lucas came up with the name and concept of midichlorians back in 1977; the idea is very old.  Now we understand why.  George was also setting up the final trilogy, the one that J.J. is currently finishing. Episodes VII through IX “were going to get into a microbiotic world,” George Lucas told James Cameron. So, like Ant-Man?  “There’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.”  Fans recall that “Whills” is an old word.  The first Star Wars novelization refers to the entire saga as The Journal of the Whills.  In Lucas’ own sequel trilogy, Jedi were to be merely “vehicles for the Whills to travel around in…And the conduit is the midichlorians. The midichlorians are the ones that communicate with the Whills. The Whills, in a general sense, they are the Force.”

Like Ant-Man meets Dr. Strange meets The Fantastic Voyage, maybe.  With lightsabers?  Terrible; undoubtedly awful.  I can’t even fathom how he would have executed this idea.  The fans would have rioted.  You think the hate that fandom gives Disney today is intense?  Imagine if George’s microscopic version got made.

But at least George had a vision.

Lucas wasn’t about making the trilogies the same.  Having watched both The Force Awakens and Phantom Menace recently on Netflix, it’s clear that J.J. made a better movie that feels more like Star Wars.  Flawed, yes, but it seemed to be setting up some pretty epic storytelling (until Rian Johnson took a shit all over it with his left turn Last Jedi.)  J.J.’s Star Wars is better acted, paced and edited.  The dialogue is far less stiff.  But George’s Phantom Menace has something that J.J.’s Force Awakens does not:  daring imagination.

One of the most successful sequences in Episode I is the pod race.  It’s completely irrelevant to the story, which is one of the many problems, but on its own, it is a glistening example of George’s unfettered imagination.  In 1999, this race was unimaginably new.  The only thing that came close was the speeder bike chase in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, primitive as it was.  Lucas broke new ground in multiple ways with his prequels, whether you like his innovations or not, and primitive CG characters aside.  People complain that J.J.’s Star Wars is just a soft reboot.  Well, watch Phantom Menace if that’s not your cup of tea.  The pod race, at least.  Lucas combined his love of race cars with science fiction and directed one of the best race sequences in the genre.  In any genre.  Even little Jake Lloyd shone in that cockpit, confidently flying himself to victory.

It’s a shame that pod race sequence was completely unnecessary.  I mean, you’re telling me Liam Neeson couldn’t figure out any other way to get off that planet, other than a complicated scheme of betting; gambling on a child pod racer?  Liam was supposed to be a goddamned Jedi master.  They keep talking about how much time they’re wasting on the planet, but they wait to see how this damned race plays out?  A race that could have killed a little kid!  Weird choices.  If you were a Jedi, you could have figured out dozens of faster and safer ways to get off that planet, right?

Once they do finally get off that planet, the Jedi arrive home on the capitol world Coruscant.  This was a bit of fan service, something that they wanted to see more of, since it had been such an important part of comics, novels and production artwork.  Cloud City aside, it was the first real time we saw an urban city environment on Star Wars.  True to form, Lucas made the whole planet one environment, in this case a city.  It was also some of the most brilliant visual designs on the prequel trilogy, one which would set the tone for the two movies that followed.

For better or for worse, Lucas spent much of the prequel trilogy defining who the Jedi were.  What they could do, what they couldn’t, and what they believed in.  We learned of the “living Force”, and oodles of Jedi wisdom about attachment and fear.  Jedi couldn’t marry, which was surprising, considering the Skywalker bloodline is the entire focus of the saga.  Yet George was throwing tons of ideas at us.  Stuff that he had been keeping in dusty old notebooks for years.  Nothing in the sequel trilogy comes close to revealing as much about the Star Wars universe as the prequels do.

Though Phantom Menace is the movie with the most cringe-worthy moments, wooden dialogue and shitty acting, there are the odd scenes that George did artistically and perfect.  Take the moment that Anakin and friends arrive on Coruscant, an overwhelming moment for the little boy.  George shot some of the footage from kid-height, allowing us to experience Anakin’s anxiety without clumsy dialogue.  The aforementioned pod race sequence is brilliant, and so is the final lightsaber duel.  For the first time, serious acrobatics and martial arts moves were incorporated into the laser sword battles.  This went on to define how the Jedi normally fought throughout all the prequels:  with a lot of jumping, leaping, and somersaulting.  For all the epic duels in the saga, one of the greatest (if not number one) is Kenobi and Jinn vs. Darth Maul.  From John Williams’ score (“Duel of the Fates”) to the choreography by Nick Gillard, it was focused through George Lucas’ lens into something absolutely brain-melting.  Until Darth Maul lost like a chump.  No excusing that; although remember that George did something similar to Boba Fett in Episode VI.

The droid designs were also pretty cool.  As iconic as a stormtrooper?  No.  But sleek, interesting, new and believable?  Absolutely.  This helped shape the visually stunning Naboo land battle scenes.  J.J. didn’t introduce any new infantry troops in his movie, he just updated the existing ones.

There was one thing that The Force Awakens and The Phantom Menace did equally well.  One very important thing that neither gets enough credit for: they made us anticipate the next film in the trilogies with hunger.  (Until Rian Johnson pissed all over J.J.’s ending, that is.)  Both films’ endings felt like the setup for events we couldn’t wait to see on screen.  The training of Anakin/Rey, for example.  A clue to the truth about the big bad guys (Sidious/Snoke).  The next meeting between good and evil.  J.J. and George both succeeded in creating this feeling of heavy anticipation.

By the time all three prequel movies played out, each problematic with wooden acting and stiff stories, fans were burned out on prequel-era Star Wars.  The Clone Wars TV show did a better job of living in that universe, but fans longed for the old familiar again.  X-Wings and Han Solo and the Empire and all of it.  So that’s what J.J. delivered.  And J.J. Abrams learned what we all know:  there is no pleasing Star Wars fans.

We fans take this stuff too seriously sometimes.  You’ve just read 1500 words, comparing Star Wars movies’ strengths and flaws.  That’s excessive, for both the reader and the writer!  We take this too seriously, friend.  Sure, we don’t go and harass the actors on Twitter like some juvenile delinquents do, but we’ve invested so much time and thought into a goddamn space movie series.  Too late to turn back now.  I think it’s important to take a break, step back and appreciate the movies from a different perspective.  Having done that with Phantom Menace, I can see it has its mitigating traits that still make me smile 20 years later.

 

 

#762: When Is Your Art Really “Done”?

GETTING MORE TALE #762: When Is Your Art Really “Done”?

 

“Where are the starting points and where are the end points? When’s a song ‘done’? What the fuck does that mean anyway? ‘Done’? When’s a record ‘done’? Where does a record start; where does it end?” — Lars Ulrich, Some Kind of Monster

When Lars Ulrich asked the rhetorical question “When is a song ‘done’?” he wasn’t just yammering meaningless bullshit.  In fact he was colourfully paraphrasing Leonardo Da Vinci, who said “A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.”  Da Vinci might be the best known example today of someone who laboured over his art.  Many of his paintings, including the Mona Lisa, conceal previous unseen versions beneath layers of paint.  Scanning the paintings with modern technology, we have been able to discern Da Vinci’s works in progress.  It is a little like peaking inside the mind of a creator as they create.

Imagine you’re finishing a painting of something completely imagined inside your head.  How much time will it take to be “done”?  Perhaps you have to make that sky a little more blue, or cloudy, to match your vision.  You will never be able to take a photograph of your imagination, so painting something is by its very nature a compromise.  You must decide when you are satisfied that you have accomplished your goal.  Let’s say you added that cloud to your painting.  It looks good to you.  Then you take a step back and look at the whole painting.  The corner where you added that cloud now looks too busy.  Did you overdo it?  Was the painting already “done”?

The same applies to music.  Axl Rose laboured over Chinese Democracy for 15 years.  There are, of course, some major differences between recording a Guns N’ Roses album and working on a painting.  With the rock album, there is far more outside pressure and this can become the dominating influence.  Even if outside forces end up pushing you to do something opposite from what they want, it has now effected your music.  The music will not take the same shape that it would have without that outside pressure.  Is that a good or bad thing?  It can be either!  Axl re-recorded the album at least once, and continually updated it as new members joined the band.  By the time 2008 rolled around and the record was “finished”, dozens of musicians and producers and managers and writers had made some kind of impact, no matter how small.

Let’s not forget George Lucas either.  The Star Wars creator fiddled with his movies continuously.  Do you really think the 1997 special editions were the first Star Wars that were changed?  Not even.  The initial updates happened in 1980, when George re-titled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope.  He fidgeted with them steadily, even beginning a fairly recent conversion to 3D until he sold the rights to Disney in 2012. (Only Phantom Menace was released in 3D, with Disney putting the project on hold in favour of the sequel trilogy.)

You can obsess over and overthink art.  You can also rush it, and end up with something “unfinished” that might actually be better.  This often happens out of necessity.  Black Sabbath famously recorded their first album in two days.  They had been playing the songs live for months and were tight as hell (pun intended) but also had a very limited amount of time in the studio.  Maybe they would have loved to stay in there, experiment with different amps and guitars, get different sounds, but there was no time.  And so the debut album Black Sabbath pukes overloaded guitar, and you can hear amps hum.  You couldn’t have made it better if you tried.  (Zakk Wylde will try and will not succeed.)  Whatever they did on that album, they did out of necessity and it just happened to work.

Though my “art” is usually the written word (and occasionally video), I also love recording song introductions.  This is for our annual “Sausagefest” party, and it’s something that allows me to really get creative with sound.  In recent years, in addition to introducing the songs, I also create an introduction for myself.  It’s sort of an audio collage of things I found funny.  This started out of necessity — it was the only way I could get my comedic bits into the evening!  Now it’s something I work and obsess over.  And this is the question I’m currently struggling with:  When is it “done”?  I started recording bits for it almost a year ago, and I began piecing the whole thing together on May 11.  Now we’re at the tail end of June and I’m still making changes!

Without giving it all away, I like to begin my intro with a certain, recognizable musical theme.  You’d know it.  This year, a certain unnamed rock band recorded their own version of that classic theme.  I happened to be playing that album in the car when I realized, I had to use it!  As soon as I got home, I started editing the audio track that I thought was “finished”.  In a couple minutes, I removed the original theme and replaced it with the 2019 rock version.  It was a few seconds longer than the original so I also had to extend the space it fit into, but that’s pretty easy to do.  Now I’m even happier with the intro.

When will it be “done”?  It will be “finished” when time is up and I’m forced to turn it in.  Until then, I continue to listen for room to improve.

I’m no Leonardo, or a Lucas, and I’m not even a Lars Ulrich (although we have shared the same hair style on numerous occasions).  I do, however, have a keen understanding that art is never done in the eyes of the creator.

 

 

DVD REVIEW: THX-1138 (George Lucas Director’s Cut)

THX-1138 (Originally 1970, 1998 George Lucas Director’s Cut, Warner DVD)

Directed by George Lucas

Anyone claiming to be a Star Wars fan that hasn’t seen THX-1138 isn’t really a Star Wars fan…yet.  You really can’t grok one without assimilating the other.  They are reflections of each other.  Themes and techniques intertwine.  Sometimes they are opposites, at others, cousins.

This is hard sci-fi. There are no cute furry Ewoks, there is no “villain”, there are only glimmers of heroics. This is a dystopian future brought to you by the once-brilliant director George Lucas, unhampered by his own commercial drives. This is as pure a vision as it gets.  One viewing is not enough to digest THX-1138.  There is little dialogue or exposition. There is no traditional music, and the story plods along in a very Kubrickian fashion.

The setting is not a long time ago, nor far far away.  It is the future right here on Earth, and humanity now lives in a vast underground city.  It is so vast that nobody ever ventures out to its superstructure where malformed, monkey-like “Shell Dwellers” remain. Perhaps they are mutants, victims of a long-forgotten nuclear holocaust.  It is a surveillance society.  Like today, there are few places you can escape the view of a camera lens.  Humanity lives in the bubble of a sterile, pristinely white city that resembles the dullest of shopping malls.  They are told to consume.  At strange Catholic-looking confessionals, one prays to the State and the Masses and a weird Christ-like face. Children are taught entire school courses via a chemical IV. Sexual activity is forbidden unless you are scheduled to produce a child. Sedation by drugs is compulsory. Failure to take your medications will result in drug offences and rehabilition. Some humans are deemed defective and left to themselves in a strange white prison, an asylum that seems to go on forever.

Our protagonist is THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), called “Tex” for short.  He does not feel well. He is sick, shaky, because he is secretly off his medication. Feelings of love and lust are stirring for his roomate, LUH. The lack of sedation has allowed those feelings to surface for the first time. It has also, however, affected his work, and one error is all it takes to clue in the powers-that-be that THX is a drug offender.

Themes turn up again in Lucas’ later films. See the totalitarian faceless government, complete with masked law enforcement (not Stormtroopers but robot officers).  Constant, overlapping staticky background dialogue makes up the most of the soundtrack to this film. Lucas has taken sound effects and used them as music, yet they still convey information crucial to the plot. For further comparison, some shots are even duplicated in Star Wars; see if you can spot them.

THX-1138 isn’t Lucas’ fairytale vision of sci-fi.  Scenes are chilling. THX is channel surfing and comes upon a program of an officer beating a human repeatedly for no apparent reason. This is the entertainment of the future.  The brutality is so iconic that Trent Reznor used the sounds in Nine Inch Nails’ song “Mr. Self Destruct”.  In another scene, two techs are tormenting THX’s body, but their dialogue betrays absolutely no connection whatsoever to the human being they are hurting. “Don’t let it get above 48,” says one, as THX is writhing in agony. “Oh, you let is get above 48, see, that’s why you’re getting those readings.”

The theme of escape, which was common with Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars, is what drives THX. He eventually finds an ally in a “hologram” (Don Pedro Colley) that he meets in the white asylum. SEN (Donald Pleasance) is suitably creepy as a man obsessed with THX and LUH.  Can they escape the city and see what is beyond?

Lucas loves tampering with his films and THX is one of them. CG race cars and cityscapes enhance the film, while CG Shell Dwellers look phony and out of place. I would have preferred the original Shell Dwellers, but in the cityscapes, the new effects certainly add depth and believability.  Just like the Star Wars special editions, some things work and others do not.  Cloud City worked well in the Star Wars digital tweaks, just as the underground one does here.

DVD bonus features are awesome, including ample documentaries.  For a treat, check for the original black and white student film that Lucas made: THX-1138-4eB – Electronic Labyrinth. See how his vision survived intact to the big screen, and see how ideas such as dialogue acting as the soundtrack was present in the original short.

A fantastic visionary sci-fi film, and a warning to us today. We must not allow our society to become as controlled as THX’s.

Not for everybody. Only for those who like thinking man’s sci-fi.

4/5 stars. Near-perfect dystopian vision.

Part 0: A Few Words for Days Gone By…

I decided to do something special for Part 250…by not doing Part 250 at all.

This isn’t one of those bullshit prequels, like when George Lucas says, “Oh, Episode I, I had that written for decades,” when it was pretty obvious he was making it up as he went along!  Nope, this isn’t like that.  I started writing the Record Store Tales over 10 years ago, and what you see below is the original first chapter.  It existed solely for the purpose of background and context, but I excised it in favour of starting things faster with the second chapter, “Run To The Hills”.  Since that became Part 1, it makes sense that this earlier introduction should be Part 0.  With hindight, I kind of wished I’d kept it in, so here it is!  And don’t forget to check out my new complete Table of Contents, should you wish to read  more!

KATHRYN GEOFF MIKEYeah…don’t ask. That’s me on the right.

A Few Words for Days Gone By…

What is childhood made of? In my mind, when you’re a kid, life consists of two things:

1. School
2. Summer Holidays

That was the cycle.  To break it down to the core, to an 11 year old life was 10 months of school followed by two months of glorious, warm sunny freedom.  Sure, you’d get to go home at the end of the day, but you were never truly free until the end of June. No more pencils, no more books, all that stuff.  It was way better than Christmas holidays.  The Canadian winters offered such fun treats as shoveling, besides snow pants, parka, boots (laced up too tight), and mittens which prevented you from using your fingers.

Our summers were boisterous. My sister Kathryn and I were like peas in a pod. We would play some kind of game every day, usually under my leadership. I would declare that today, we were going to play Star Wars. Other possible declarations included building fleets of Lego ships and cars, and having a giant war. Or inventing a new ball game.  Once GI Joe came along, we’d dig trenches in the yard, as well as forts and garages of twigs and leaves, and have an entire day (or week) dedicated to Cobra Commander’s new secret weapon. Aside from an occasional rebellion from my sister, our summers were mostly uninterrupted merriment.

STAR WARS

My sister and I both clearly remember one such rebellion, where she wanted to do things her way.  It involved our Star Wars figures.  We were already mid-battle.  I was setting up a perfect counter-offensive. The Millenium Falcon would sneak attack Vader’s base, take out his Tie Fighter early in the melee, while Luke would take out Boba Fett. Leia and Lando had to distract Jabba The Hutt, so that he couldn’t stop Luke when he eventually confronted the Emperor. Game over! The plan was perfect. Now I just needed my sister to coordinate the battle with me, under my command of course.

Much to my disappointment, she had moved around some of the figures and now had them seated.  Luke and Vader were next to each other. “Why are Luke and Vader sitting there? Luke is about to attack and Vader should be getting into his ship.”

My sister continued playing with the figures, and without looking up, replied, “Luke and Vader want to be friends now. They’re having tea.”

It didn’t matter that half the figures were hers, if she didn’t know how to play Star Wars right. So I’d yell a bit, act like a big brother usually does, and eventually she’d go along with the plan, or cry and leave.  The evil Empire would be defeated once and for all, thanks to my brilliant leadership and strategy.  We were definitely pals, growing up.

For years, this was the way of the summer holidays. We’d be doing something awesome at home, or at the cottage, but it would always be something cool. It didn’t matter where we were: games continued wherever we went.  We’d make a game out of anything.   You give us a pile of junk and we’ll make a game out of it.

STYX FRONTAll things do come to an end. The Star Wars trilogy ended in 1983 and something needed to fill the vacuum. While GI Joe and later Transformers would temporarily take its place, I was getting older.  My attention was drifting.  I was looking for something cool, new, and exciting.  Video games didn’t hold my attention and neither did sports.

Starting in 1983, several things happened in a short time frame.  Styx released a single called “Mr. Roboto” that some of my friends at school were obsessed with.   Then I heard a song called “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” by AC/DC, and it was pretty cool too.  Then, a newer band called Quiet Riot came out with an album called Metal Health that would go on to sell three million copies.  This was my first rock cassette purchase when I was in the 6th grade.  Something connected…

AC/DC.  Van Halen.  Ozzy Osbourne.  Black Sabbath.  Def Leppard.  Motley Crue.  Iron Maiden.  Who were these people? I had a lot to find out.

Continued in Record Store Tales Part 1:  Run to the Hills

Part 209: The Phantom Menace

 

RECORD STORE TALES Part 209:  The Phanton Menace

Some at the record store made fun of me for being such a serious Star Wars fan.  I’m not a hard core fanboy; I don’t go to conventions or follow the books and TV shows, but I am pretty dedicated to the films.  I booked May 19, 1999 off work well in advance to see The Phantom Menace on opening day.

I’m not going to turn this story into a review for Phantom Menace.  That movie’s been reviewed by thousands of people and I’m not interested in contributing to the background noise.  The only thing you need to really agree with me on is that there was a tremendous excitement for Phantom Menace back in 1999.  I had been dreaming of what might happen before and after the Holy Trilogy since I was 5 years old.  My sister was only a baby when the first Star Wars came out, but she did get to see Empire in the theaters.  She is a slightly bigger fan than I am, but she doesn’t follow the expanded universe or any of that stuff.

We both booked the day off work and planned to go together.  Our strategy was this:  Since we knew that the theaters would be absolutely packed for the midnight opening, we picked an out of the way (but still THX) theater that had a noon showing. So, all we had to do was wait an extra 12 hours (at home), and we’d get in no problem!

We showed up at the theater and were, like, seventh in line.  No sweat.  Soon we had our seats in a sparsely seated theater.  Then the trailers (something called Titan AE, which inspired a heckle of “What the hell was that?” from the audience).  Then the Fox fanfare, the Lucasfilm logo and finally…”A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”

136 minutes later (we stayed for the credits of course) we were pretty satisfied with the movie.  Keep in mind that fast shit had been whizzing in front of our faces for over two hours.  There were things that didn’t make sense, there were things we didn’t like much (the kid, Jar Jar) but we kept telling ourselves the same thing.

“Yeah, but it’s the first chapter.  The next one will be where it really starts.”

As we were talking about it, I said, “Wanna see it again?  It went so fast there was a ton of stuff I’m sure I missed.”

“Sure!” she answered.  “Yeah!”

We went back out to the ticket counter.  There were a few people in line, but not many.  “Two for Star Wars, please,” I said as I approached the counter.

“Didn’t you just come out of Star Wars?” she said with that snooty tone.

“Yep.  We liked it,” I answered.

“And you want to see it again?”  We did.

We went back in.  The second time lacked a bit of the awe.  This time, I paid more attention to the details.  Questions came to my mind.  “If Yoda is the Jedi Master that instructed Obi-Wan, then why is Liam Neeson training him?”  Stuff like that.

I still remember that on the way home, we stopped at the HMV store, and I bought Ed Hunter by Iron Maiden.  When we got home, we were still excited about the movie, telling Mom and Dad all the details.  My dad was skeptical.

“Does it have the emotion of the first one?  Does it have the feeling?” he inquired.

“Well…no not exactly,” I rationalized.  “This is just the first chapter.  The next one will be where it really starts.”

My dad was onto something.

The hilarious Red Letter Media review

I also distinctly remember watching Phantom Menace again with Tom and a franchise owner, on VHS, shortly after it came out.

In 2005 I first met the girl who would later become my wife, but she had never seen Star Wars.  I was really excited to be the guy that got to watch Star Wars with her for the first time.  For some stupid reason that to this day I will never understand, I decided to start her off with Episode I:  The Phantom Menace.  Bad idea.

“That stupid fucking dino-guy” is what she named Jar-Jar Binks.  She hated it.  (She liked Episode III though.)  Then, her dad (rest his soul) decided that he wanted to see the Star Wars prequels too.  One Saturday night I went over there with my DVD copy of Phanton Menace in hand.  And so it was that Jen had to see Phantom Menace not once, but twice.

We’ll be married five years this August, more awesomer than ever, so “that stupid fucking dino-guy” couldn’t have been all that  bad, right?

NEXT TIME ON RECORD STORE TALES…

LeBrain on the radio!

REVIEW: Ozzy Osbourne – “Flying High Again” (2011 Record Store Day exclusive single)

FLYING HIGH AGAIN_0003

OZZY OSBOURNE – “Flying High Again” (2011 Record Store Day exclusive)

Here’s something of an underappreciated item.  Everybody knows that Ozzy and Sharon re-recorded the drums and bass on Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman back in 2002.  In retrospect this was a shrewd move despite the fan backlash.  In Lucas-esque fashion, it enabled them to restore the original versions for much-hyped reissues in 2011.  To usher in these new/old releases, Record Store Day shoppers were able to buy a replica original “Flying High Again” single.

Both the reissue and the original 1981 single featured the B-side, “I Don’t Know”, recorded live at an unspecified gig.  Like Diary of a Madman itself, this B-side had its bass and drums re-recorded in 2002.  It is difficult to hear the differences, but listen to the bass tracks right around the 2:10 minute mark.  Where Bob Daisley plays lots of interesting harmonics, the re-recorded version has Rob Trujillo hitting the lows.  The bass parts are very different.

DIARY_0001

The credits on the 2002 edition of Diary indicate all tracks, “live” one included, were remixed with new bass and drums.

When Diary was reissued in 2011, it did not include this B-side, but instead an entire (different) concert on a bonus CD. Therefore the original version of the “I Don’t Know” B-side remains a vinyl exclusive.  Cool.  I am not sure why this was not advertised on the single sleeve or in the media.  In fact, I’ve owned this single for two years without putting 2 + 2 together.  The “Flying High Again” vinyl single is the only place you can get the original, untampered “I Don’t Know” live B-side!

For that reason alone:

5/5 stars

But is this worth $12 as per the price tag?  That’s one thing that bugs me about these singles today.  I understand that manufacturing costs have changed and it’s a niche item, but still!  $12 for one song.    One song, because they were going to sell us all “Flying High Again” itself on the Diary reissue, as advertised on the front.

Price: 2/5 stars

Part 2: Gimme an R!

RECORD STORE TALES Part 2:  Gimme an R!

When I was growing up in Kitchener, you had only a few choices of who it was OK to listen to. In 1984, your status depended on your listening choices.

Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister were both “finished” by that point, if you liked them you were not cool anymore. Kiss were kind of cool, but only if you only liked their newest album. The stuff with makeup was “lame” and “old fashioned”.  Van Halen were passé by the time David Lee Roth did “California Girls”.  Judas Priest was OK, but the singer had short hair. And Ozzy?  He scared us.  Even then we couldn’t understand a word he said, plus he looked like a monster on his records.

Your only real choices were: Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P., or Helix.

And no matter who you were into primarily, everybody liked Helix. Why? Well, mainly because Brian Vollmer lived on Breckenridge Drive. I could probably see his place from my parents’ bedroom window.

Fritz (Helix) and LeBrain

Fritz (Helix) and LeBrain

All the kids who lived on Breckenridge, like Ian Johnson, would always tell stories about Brian, who lived three doors down. Brian’s got a cool car, he’d say. Brian got a Christmas card from W.A.S.P., and it was so fucked up…something about “Slashing through the toes, in a one horse open slay…” But then again, Ian Johnson also told us he knew George Lucas and he a squad of ninjas who had a secret base in his basement.

Ian Johnson did not have a basement.

So, Helix were the band you had to like. But the stories of Brian Vollmer and his bandmates were considered heresay at best. I had never actually seen Brian in the flesh. He was considered a legend, a myth, like Loch Ness or Sasquatch. Ian, after all, couldn’t be trusted.

Well, fast forward two decades, and now Helix is now a rock institution. They keep truckin on, with new members and new records, but Brian Vollmer is still at the helm, proudly still asking us to give him an R.

Of course, in this day and age, everybody has a website, and an email. The first time I ever wrote to Brian a few years ago, I asked him if he did indeed live on Breckenridge. He confirmed for me that he did, with his first wife, during the early 80’s. Ian told the truth! (I never did email George Lucas to find out about that part of the story.)

Hell, just last night I was surfing http://www.planethelix.com and saw the very Christmas card from W.A.S.P. “Slashing through the toes”. Brian had scanned it and added it to the memorabilia on his site.

Every time you went to the grocery store in 1984 or 85, you’d take a second look at all the long haired guys. I swore I saw Brent Doerner buying soda at Zerhs, but I lost him in the crowd.  Or was it Brian Doerner?

Again, fast forward a few years. When the movie “Fubar” came out, Sum 41 contributed a version of “Rock You” to the soundtrack. I was working at the record store, and a gentleman came in and asked if he could listen to it. He used to be in Helix, you see, and wanted to hear Sum 41’s version. It was Brian Doerner, Helix’s drummer in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Brent’s twin brother. The Doerners are very distinct looking, I should have recognized him immediately. I of course identified myself as a big fan, and we had a nice chat. Brian Doerner turned out to be the nicest guy.

I saw Helix in 1987 and again in 1996, and again from the second row in 2006 (opening for Alice!), and a bunch of times in 2007. They were great every time.  It’s funny because I can’t think of too many kids in the 8th grade who still proudly listen to the same music then as they do now.  They’re all probably embarrassed that they used to listen to Mr. Mister, or Boy George.  I don’t mind boasting that I was never into the trends.  I knew what I liked then, I know what I like now, and although my tastes have grown and expanded tremendously, I never felt embarrassed by my roots.  I still love Maiden, I still love Helix, more now than then.

I remember when Paul Hackman was killed in 1992. It was the total Cliff Burton accident; he was thrown from the tour bus in a crash. My friend Mike McNeill was in a band opening for Helix at the time, he was there.  When we first met in my record store, that’s one of the first topics that came up:  Helix!

Playing the albums today, you can hear that so many of them are solid all the way through. The first two, Breaking Loose and White Lace & Black Leather have that 70’s sound, as only an indi band in 1978 could sound. I think those albums probably only sold about 2000 copies each at the time. But they are solid, the band was writing varied music. And they were always superb musicians. Brent Doerner’s a really talented guitar player, with an amazing stage presence.

“Billy Oxygen” from the very first record , aptly titled Breaking Loose, is a marvel.  Drums:  Brian Doener.  Fast, accurate, and hard, like a good jazz drummer.  Bass solo courtesy of Keith “Burt” Zurbrigg.  Brent Doener took the lead vocal on this, a song he wrote and garner the band some of their first airplay.  The lyrics seemed to be about a spaceman named Billy Oxygen, who went to other planets looking for people to party with.  Not exactly Arthur C. Clarke-ian, but to a me, any sci-fi reference in a song was cool.  (That’s why we older rock fans love Savatage, those silly Trekkies.)

When I was in University I tried my hand at bad, bad science fiction short stories.  Suffice to say, none of it survives today with good reason.  However, Helix had a little moment in my fiction:  My spaceship was called an ES-335, named after Billy Oxygen’s ship in the song.  And only a little while ago did I learn that ES-335 wasn’t the name of a spaceship at all.   An ES-335 was a Gibson guitar.

There were other science fiction moments in Helix songs as well. “Wish I Could Be There”, from the same album, is one such song.  It’s about a guy who dreams of going to space.  That song represents their epic, their “Stairway to Heaven”.   “Time for a Change” from the second album spoke of nuclear war, if we do not change our ways, a common theme in the sci-fi of the era.

I should clarify, however, that we didn’t even know about these first albums back in 1984.  The earliest song we knew was “Heavy Metal Love”, and even that was pretty new.  We were vaguely aware that they had existed before 1984, but we didn’t know for sure because there were no music videos before that, and those records were out of print.  You couldn’t walk into Sam The Record Man and ask Al King for them.

Occasionally we would hear rumours.  Usually these “little known facts” would come from that one uncle that everyone had, the one who wore no shirt, watched a lot of football, and had a handlebar moustache.  Usually this stereotypical uncle would say, “Yeah, Helix have been around a long time, like 20 years, I saw them when they were still a country band.  My buddy was in the band too.”

Some nights I sat up in a sweat about this.  A country band?  Helix?  Sure, I didn’t hate country music, my dad played that Johnny Cash stuff and it’s alright.  (I even saw Johnny Cash live in ’83, before I ever heard of Helix.) But Helix were rockers!  Rockers were about breaking loose!  They sang about their heavy metal loves!  They told us not to do what people tell you to do, and to always be yourself!  If a bunch of country guys were now posing as rockers to make a buck, well, that would be a black mark on Rock N’ Roll.  Why?  Because it would prove that our dads were right:  Rockers were just in it for the money.  If we couldn’t trust Helix, you couldn’t trust any of them.  Especially W.A.S.P.

We didn’t speak of these things often.  It was bad to speak of these things.  But each of us dreamed—nightmared—about finding a copy of an early Helix album in our uncles’ musty collections.  And in the dream, there they were always on the cover.  A black and white photo.  And they’re wearing cowboy hats.

It never came to that.  When their first two albums, Breaking Loose and White Lace & Black Leather, were finally issued on CD in 1992, they sounded pretty damn good.  It’s classic rock, but harder, much harder.  And best of all, it sounds like home.  Everything about those two albums sounds like right here.  If I played them for you, you’d hear nothing.  But to me, I can’t understand how nobody else can hear that these albums were born right here in Kitchener,Ontario.

Brian Vollmer and I, back in in 2007 at Planet Helix!

Brian Vollmer and I, back in in 2007 at Planet Helix!

The kids from Kitchener 1984 didn’t hear about Helix until MuchMusic started throwing “Rock You” into heavy rotation.  The song was everything we needed at the time.  It was catchy, yet you and your tone deaf friends could all chant it.  Hey, maybe that’s the same reason hip-hop is popular today?

The video for “Rock You” was equally cool.  There were whips, chains, nearly naked girls, leather, guitars, and fire.  The best part of the video was when Brent Doerner comes out of the water with his Les Paul screaming the guitar solo.  And then your friends would debate:  “Could that guy really play under water?”  “No way man, he’d get electrocuted!”  “Are you sure?  That looked awesome though.”  It was catchy, but you could still be a tough guy if you liked this band, because clearly they got lots of girls.

Come to think of it, Helix seemed to get lots of girls.  There were girls in every single video that we had seen!  Granted, the one in “(Make Me Do) Anything You Want” was doing ballet and stuff, but she was still alright.

Oh, and by the way, Ian Johnson also took credit for the “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'” video.  He said, and I quote because I will never forget this, “Yeah, that was my idea.  I told Brian that he should make a video with a lot of girls in it.  So, he did.”

But then again, Ian Johnson also said that he wrote the Disney movie “Bambi”.

But that, dear friends, is another story.