Sunday, 25 April 2010
Tod Browning, the director of ‘Freaks’, had been a member of a travelling circus in his youth and was determined that in his adaptation of the Tod Robbin’s short story ‘Spurs’ the carnival performers that provided his cast would be fairly represented.
Consequently the ‘freaks’ of the title are the heroes of the piece with the villainy provided by two ‘normal’ circus artistes who conspire to kill one of their fellow performers.
However, Browning could not control the response of the general public to his film.
Problems began when F. Scott Fitzgerald, then a jobbing screenwriter, was nursing a hangover in the studio cafeteria as the Siamese twins from the production came in for lunch.
Fitzgerald saw them and scrambled out of the cafeteria to vomit in the nearest bathroom.
Fitzgerald references the scene in his short story ‘Crazy Sunday’ where he has the main character, a screenwriter, see a troupe of circus performers from a film in production wandering around the studio lot. Fitzgerald's character proves to be made of stronger stuff than his creator and has no adverse reaction to seeing the troupe.
Browning presented the studio with his final cut which ran at around 90 minutes.
A series of disastrous test screenings culminated in a threat of a lawsuit to the studio from a woman who claimed the film had made her miscarry her baby.
The studio removed scenes that were deemed to be too shocking or disturbing, which included the ‘freaks’ attacking one of the villains as she lay under a tree and a particularly gruesome castration scene. They also added an epilogue that provided a substantially more up-beat ending.
This new 64 minute version was the one that saw commercial release and it is believed that the scenes removed are lost forever...
Sunday, 18 April 2010
By 1965 Brian Wilson had tired of the Beach Boys persona as a ‘fun in the sun’ band, singing about the beach, girls and good times. He wanted to experiment more musically and expand the scope of the band from it’s base of close harmonies and infectious hooks.
On the second side of ‘The Beach Boys Today!’ (1965) Wilson moved away from the up-beat songs that had defined the band up to this point and presented a series of melancholic ballads.
This didn’t affect the albums sales but did disturb some of the other Beach Boys and the groups record label. For ‘Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) (1965) Mike Love and Capitol Records sought assurances from Wilson that there would be a return to the carefree, happy-go-lucky style that had brought them such success.
On the surface Wilson appeared to accept this with songs such as ‘Amusement Parks USA’ and ‘California Girls’ but musically Wilson moved into new levels of symphonic sophistication and more complex arrangements of the songs.
Wilson then made a decision that the Beatles would also make a year later by making the Beach Boys a studio project. Rather than touring and promoting their music through concerts the Beach Boys would work from the studio and focus on new musical releases.
This would allow Wilson the time he needed to produce the more intricate music he wanted to without the demands of the road on the group as well.
The decision paid off almost immediately with ‘Pet Sounds’ (1966).
Featuring unconventional instrumentation from sources as unlikely as bicycle bells and dog whistles and dense layers of vocal harmony ‘Pet Sounds’ was a huge leap for ‘pop’ music.
However it was not the commercial smash that Capitol had hoped for.
‘Pet Sounds’ reached #10 in the American charts which, while far from a disaster, is put in perspective by the fact that their previous release ‘Beach Boys Party!’ (1965) reached #6 despite consisting entirely of cover versions.
However ‘Pet Sounds’ was a massive hit in the UK. It reached #2 in the chart there and became massively influential in British music circles.
The Beatles took huge inspiration from ‘Pet Sounds’ and their next release ‘Revolver’ (1966) was similarly groundbreaking. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a melancholic ballad featuring innovative orchestration while ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ had a backing track made up of tape loops that were randomly mixed from various parts of the recording studio.
While the Beatles were working on ‘Revolver’ Wilson had recorded ‘Good Vibrations’.
‘Good Vibrations’ was a single that eventually would be released at a length of three minutes and thirty seven seconds. It’s recording involved 17 sessions at 4 different studios, over 90 hours of tape and a budget of $50,000. Wilson has said that the recording of the elecro-theremin for the song cost $15,000 on it’s own.
Wilson saw this as a prototype for the recording of the new Beach Boys album ‘Smile’.
‘Smile’ was seen by Wilson as a ‘teenage symphony to God’ and would feature songs that were thematically and musically linked.
One of the major features of the album was to have been a suite of songs called ‘The Elements.’
These songs would be related to Earth, Air , Fire and Water but this is where the cracks in the project began to appear.
Wilson, who had began to show signs of mental fragility and had exhibited depresion and paranoia over the last few months became increasingly more unstable.
At a point where the sessions were proving challenging Wilson had ordered a sand pit be installed in the studio. He felt that having the ‘beach’ in the studio would inspire the group.
During the recording of the ‘Fire Suite’ for the album Wilson became increasingly obsessed with the song. He was frustrated by the groups inability to nail the recording and ordered them to wear toy firemen hats to focus on the song properly. Eventually, as the song took shape, Wilson managed to convince himself that the recording had caused a number of fires in the surrounding neighbourhood and ordered all the tapes of the session to be burned.
Wilson’s mental disintegration and opposition from within the group as to the value of the project meant that progress was very slow.
The next blow came when Wilson was driving in his car one day and the new Beatles single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ came on the radio. Wilson pulled over to listen and when the song finished turned to his companion in the car and simply said ‘They got there first.’
On the 6th of May 1967 a press release was issued that ‘Smile’ was being shelved as a project by the Beach Boys.
On the 11th of September 1967 the new Beach Boys album was released. It was called ‘Smiley Smile’ and featured a number of tracks composed for the ‘Smile’ album.
Tellingly, for the first time the production of the album was credited to the group rather than Brian Wilson.
In 2004 Brian Wilson teamed up with his key collaborator on the original ‘Smile’ project Van Dyke Parks and members of his own touring band to record ‘SMiLE’.
This was an attempt by Wilson to reflect what the original album should have been.
Thematically and structurally it was closer to the spirit of the album as originally envisaged and the involvement of Parks was seen as vital by Wilson.
However the lack of any Beach Boys on the album angered former Beach Boy Mike Love who sued Wilson in 2005. Love maintained that the re-recording of Beach Boys songs caused millions of dollars in damages to a partnership between him and Wilson.
This lawsuit was thrown out of court by a federal judge in 2007 who determined that no such partnership existed between Love and Wilson at the time of the re-recordings and that none had existed for decades...
Sunday, 11 April 2010
‘Szkieletor’ was originally intended to become headquarters of the Naczelna Organizacja Techniczna (Main Technical Organisation) in Krakow, Poland.
Construction began in 1975 but was halted in 1981 due to financial constraints.
At the time that work stopped on the building the internal structure had been completed but the exterior walls had not been built.
Locals dubbed the building ‘Szkieletor’ after ‘Skeletor’ the villain from the popular 80's cartoon series ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’.
For now, it is believed to be too expensive to complete, adapt or demolish the building...
Tuesday, 6 April 2010
Originally planned as a magazine article to be completed with his friend Franz Hessel, Walter Benjamin began work on ‘The Arcades Project’ in 1927.
Initially taking shape in a small black notebook the work would span the rest of Benjamins life and end up forming 426 double pages of manuscript that he deposited with his friend George Bataille to be stored in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris on the outbreak of war in 1939.
From it’s origins as an essay ‘The Arcades Project’ became a series of quotations that Benjamin collected to be formed into what he described as ‘a literary montage.’
Benjamin saw himself as a ‘ragpicker’. A man sifting through the detritus of history and forming a narrative from the refuse. He had appropriated this vision of the ragpicker as poet from Charles Baudelaire and used another of Baudelaire’s images, that of the ‘flaneur’, to form the theme of ‘The Arcades Project.’
Baudelaire saw the ‘flaneur’ as ‘a person who walks the city in order to experience it.’
Benjamin saw the ‘flaneur’ as a product of modernity and the city. Specifically he believed that the Arcades, areas of the city covered with steel and glass protecting those inside from the elements, provided a natural staging post for the journeys of the ‘flaneur.’
The Arcades contained new kinds of shops and living quarters, novel forms of architecture and provided a fresh showcase for fashion, advertising and photography and Benjamin saw in them the shaping of the modern world.
Starting as an essay then, ‘The Arcades Project’ moved rapidly into a much larger work than Benjamin first anticipated. Initially his plan was to avoid analysis:
‘I needn’t say anything. Merely show.’
Benjamin hoped to do this by collecting quotations. Soon he had collected over 600.
Benjamin took pride in his archival organisation and felt that the quotations were so well collated and organised that ‘you can get an overview at a glance.’
The bibliography for the project eventually stood at 850 titles.
With the work threatening to spiral out of control Benjamin attempted to use some of the material he had collected for ‘The Arcades Project’ for a shorter work on Baudelaire.
Neither project was completed.
On September 27th 1940 Walter Benjamin committed suicide in a town called Portbou on the border between France and Spain while trying to avoid being captured by the invading Nazi forces. The group he was with had been denied passage at the border.
Benjamin had been carrying two manuscripts with him when he died.
One of these was ‘On the Concept of History’ which Hannah Arendt collected when she crossed at Portbou a few months later and passed on to Theodor Adorno.
The other had disappeared. There is speculation that it could have been a final form of ‘The Arcades Project’ but this seems unlikely.
Instead, editions of ‘The Arcades Project’ have been published since 1980 based on the notes in the manuscript stored in the Bibliotheque Nationale.
Critics have seen these versions as speculative at best but it seems unlikely that Benjamin would have objected too strongly to people picking though his rags...