Saturday, September 26, 2009

Soma Records Roundup

Soma: Ancient Hindus used this word to describe a magical beverage, drink of the gods, or more accurately, the Drink-as-God. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a drug called soma which, when ingested, induced visions. So many dreams. So many visions. Midwestern businessman Amos Heilicher may or may not have had visions, but in 1957 he did think to spell his own name backwards. Then he used the handle for his new record company, Soma Records.

Minneapolis born and based, Soma epitomized the great American independent label. During its heyday, 1959-1966, it thrived largely beyond the reach of national trends, and, thanks to a number of favorable conditions, it functioned as linchpin for a uniquely regional rock ‘n’ roll scene. For one, Heilicher owned probably every juke box and “rack job” (record vendor for dime stores) in Minnesota, and he had the power to sway local airplay in favor of his co’s records. Then the kids themselves, ever hungry for danceable tunes, and living in a region largely crossed-off the tours of big national acts, threw favor at homegrown heroes like the Trashmen, The Accents, Underbeats, et al. In such relative isolation, a taste for rough rockin’ instrumentals developed. Most of the action took place at the dozens of weekly dances held around the region. By playing these dances, many of the bands earned exceptionally good money, even by today’s standards. Such conditions had a way of reversing the usual formula where the show promotes the record. Records became calling cards for the shows. Still, many of ‘em--released by a slew of labels, but especially the Soma discs by the Fendermen, Bobby Vee, The Gestures--charted, and charted big.

What follows is by no means a comprehensive roundup, but it covers the classics. There's a streaming playlist at the end of this post.

The Fendermen “Mule Skinner Blues” b/w “Torture” 1960 (Soma 1137). Jim Sundquist & Phil Humphrey shred the Jimmy Rodgers original, achieving some kinda pinnacle of hickoid mania while landing a surprise spot in the Top 10. Thirty years later, the Phantom Surfers lifted the riff from the instro “Torture” as the basis for their own classic surf stomp “Wave Hog.”

The Fendermen “Don’t You Just Know It” b/w “Beach Party” 1960 (Soma 1142). The cover tune backed by an original instro works again.

The Gestures “Run, Run, Run” b/w “It Seems to Me” 1964 (Soma 1417). Now a classic from the Nuggets comp, this one got released midway through Soma’s great run.

The Gestures

The Trashmen “Surfin’ Bird” b/w “King of the Surf” 1963 (GA 4002). Does this one really need an introduction? On Soma subsidiary Garrett records, named for Soma engineer George Garret.

The Trashmen “Whoa Dad!” b/w “Walkin’ My Baby” (GA 4012). A-side’s a Felice & Boudleaux Bryant composition, and one of the coolest records ever!

The Trashmen

Dave Dudley “Six Days on the Road” b/w “I Feel a Cry Coming On” 1963 (GW 3020). On another Soma subsidiary, the C&W imprint Golden Wing. Immortal trucker classic backed with one of the sappiest titles ever. That’s Dave Dudley for ya, who shoulda steered his big rig wide round the countrypolitan pile-up.

Dave Dudley

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Soul City, et al.

Went to the Millennium Film Project in New York City last night to catch screenings of "Blank Generation" "Punking Out" & M. Henry Jones' 1978 animated film "Soul City," featuring the Fleshtones. That last one, essentially a music vid from the days before the birth the monster MTV, was fucking great--the images of the Fleshtones are actually animated stills! This YouTube version, great as it is, pales next to the actual 16mm print.

All the filmmakers were present to introduce their work. Amos Poe and Ivan Kral talked about making "Blank Generation," essentially an un-synched home movie from the CBGB heyday. Maggie Carson introduced "Punking Out." As a young documentarian, Carson bravely interviewed Stiv Bators, Jimmy Zero, and Dee Dee Ramone, and got some of the best live footage of Richard Hell & the Voidoids and the Heartbreakers I've ever seen. And M. Henry Jones detailed the painstaking work that went into "Soul City." Each stressed how radically the world, especially New York City, has changed since they made their films, and how dramatically digital technology has transformed media.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"I Got To Be Drivin' Off Into the Sunset" - Henry Gibson RIP

Henry Gibson, cast member on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In who also played country star Haven Hamilton in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville, died today of cancer. He was 73. Here's a link to the NY Times obit.

And here's Gibson from an old episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, playing western movie star Quirt Manly. In fact, Quirt even appears to be driving Webb Pierce's old custom Caddie, designed by Nudie Cohen of Hollywood.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pop Surf Culture: Moondoggie's Short, Glorious Ride

A somewhat depressing theme begins to emerge from the heaps of great documentary books appearing these days, namely, that ALL THE COOL STUFF IS OVER.

Such is the case with the subject of Pop Surf Culture (Santa Monica Press Books, 2008) by Brian Chidester and Domenic Priore (Priore also being the creator of Dumb Angel Gazette). Here the authors successfully delineate a history and cultural commentary on that brief, early era in surfing--what they term the Bohemian Surf Boom--before it was overrun by the jocks, ugly clothing, godawful music, and corporate sponsorship that now dominate that scene. So what you get here is a great look at the golden years, mainly the period between the mid-1950s to 1970. And, much like modern surfing pioneer Bob Simmons, who for decades combed the California coast on a perpetual search for uncharted surf spots, Chidester and Priore have combed the annals of surf mags, movies, music, and ephemera. In Pop Surf Culture they’ve assembled their findings into the definitive book on the subject, one that’s as entertaining as it is graphically rich.

Among the highlights of Pop Surf Culture is the chapter on Mickey “da Cat” Dora, the original Malibu surf punk, whose story of unmatched surfing mastery, party crashing, media pranks, global lamming from the man, and finally jail time, earns a place in the cool hall of fame. Also, readers would be hard-pressed to find more comprehensive guides to essential surf records, movies, and vintage mags than those presented here.

So yes, another great document about another extinct American scene. Although, on a more upbeat note, the book closes by hinting that a few youngbloods known as the Mollusk Crew (associated with the Mollusk Surf Shop of SF, CA, but there’s even one in Williamsburg!) are currently picking up the “bohemian” torch again.

Pop Surf Culture cover art by Frank Kozik
Surfink sleeve art by --do ya really need to be told?
My Son the Surf Nut sleeve art by Rick Griffin

The Beach Boys - "Moon Dawg"
The Trashmen - "King of the Surf"
Ronnie & the Daytonas - "California Bound"
Jack Nitzche - "The Lonely Surfer"
The Ventures - "The Lonely Sea"

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Possum is Awesome: Happy Birthday George Jones

Back in the 1970s, odds favored the inevitable and final self-destruction of George Jones to occur before that decade’s end. But here he is today, amazingly enough, still alive in 2009, turning 78 today.

Born September 12, 1931, in the Big Thicket outpost of Saratoga, Texas, Jones came of age during the birth of honky tonk, hearing Al Dexter, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell on beerjoint jukeboxes and Opry radio. The Possum, so named for his flat-top haircut and blank, beady eyes, cut his first sides for Pappy Daily’s fledgling Starday Records. In a makeshift studio lined with acoustical egg cartons--inspiration for the KORN radio booth on Hee-Haw?--Jones cut his earliest hit “Why Baby Why” from 1955. Before that, however, he’d already cut a few sides, including the killer “Play It Cool, Man,” a duet with rockabilly Sonny Burns.

Nick Tosches already wrote the definitive profile on the Possum, “George Jones: The Grand Tour,” the full version of which is reprinted in The Nick Tosches Reader (Da Capo, 2000). There Tosches describes an essentially unknowable man, a blank spot in possession of one of the greatest voices in Country Music, a mysterious “cipher,” a “prisoner of drink,” and later, prisoner of a bleak sobriety. About him we have only clues; a big one for Tosches is Jones’ rendition of Cindy Walker’s “Warm Red Wine,” included on the 1962 LP George Jones Sings Bob Wills.

The Possum’s career contains so many great chapters...there’s the earliest Starday and Mercury stuff from the 50s, the Musicor stuff from the 60s, when Johnny Paycheck played bass in the Jones Boys and, it is said, lent new direction to Jones’ own singing. (See my April post on Paycheck to hear some of that stuff.) Even much of the lush (pun intended) Billy Sherrill stuff is killer.

About that early, hard-boppin’ Thumper Jones phase, the Possum professes embarassment. “I don’t guess I’m ever gonna live that down,” he once told Tosches. But sides like “Rock It”, “How Come It”, “Maybe Little Baby”, and a slew of others he and Pappy Daily worked up in their attempt to get with that newfangled rock ‘n’ roll then eclipsing country music, now rank as classics.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling

Here’s more evidence that life was better before television. More specifically, life was better before cable television, which, among other crimes, deserves blame for slamming the great American sport of regional professional wrestling into the turnbuckle back in the late 70s/early 80s.

But before it got the final knee-drop, regional wrestling flourished during the 50s, 60s, & 70s in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, Memphis in those days stood as the biggest, liveliest stop in pioneering promoter Nick Gulas’ territory. Here, at the old Ellis Auditorium and, later, the Mid-South Coliseum, big national names like the Blassie Brothers and Andre the Giant grappled with local heroes Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, and Jerry “the King” Lawler, while the kinds of characters and story lines that are now commonplace were first worked-up before rabid audiences.

Butch Boyette, the coolest looking of Memphis Wrestlers? That's wife Barbara Galento beside him.

That golden era is now beautifully chronicled in Ron Hall’s book Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets, the Early Days of Memphis Wrestling, published by Shangri-La Projects (the same folks who brought you Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis, and The Memphis Garage Rock Yearbook, as well as the great Shangri-La Records store in Memphis). Thumbing through the wonders contained within the pages of Sputnik, one has to ask whether any greater collection of early wrestling photos, promo shots, clippings, wrestling cards, and records--actually, Sputnik comes with a CD of classics like Sputnik Monroe’s "Sputnik Hires a Band" and Jackie Fargo’s “Champ of Champs”--has ever been compiled. What’s more, Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets gives the reader privileged access to the photos of Robert Dye, Sr., a Memphis entertainment photographer active in the 40s and 50s who also documented the action at Ellis Auditorium. No better vantage point on the figures and faces of this lost world could you hope to find.

Sputnik Hires a Band


Another interesting story that Sputnik touches on is how segregation lurked over the proceedings. Initially black members of the wrasslin’ audience were relegated to the balcony at Ellis Auditorium. Sputnik Monroe, who boasted a large black fan base, played a key role in changing that rule (a story that gets more time in Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis). The collection of Memphis wrestling cards re-printed in Sputnik subtly illustrates how, in the 50s, any non-caucasian, non-male wrestler would be stuck in some novelty match slot at the bottom. But by the 60s & 70s, Brown Bashers like Sailor Art Thomas, Rocky Johnson, and Bobo Brazil were featured in title matches, while lady wrestlers, midget wrestlers, Bavarian Boys, Tojos, Shieks, and Scufflin’ Hillbillies had all moved up to more prominent spots on the card.

Sputnik Monroe

Thumbing through the pages of Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets makes for hours of fun, whether you’re a true fan of the “King of Sport,” or just another one out for kicks on a Monday night, when the Mid-South league used to hold matches. Sputnik might be as close as you can get now to the real thing.