Friday 19 August 2011

Preservation Acts (or: Retromania, Take 1: The Unpromising Pilot Edition)

Despite the fact that he hadn't been able to convincingly pass for Mexican, Charlton Heston had become something of a top-tier American screen icon by the early 1970s. Yeah sure, there were his wonderfully overwrought deliveries in those revelatory moments of Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green; but personally, I was always more fond his performance in The Omega Man. As the second of three attempted screen adaptations of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, it is one of the decade's most deliciously WTF films.*

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is the part where -- between taking time out from grilling steaks in his townhouse fortress to casually mow down encroaching vampire-zombies with a machine gun, never shedding his smoking jacket the entire time -- Heston's character decides to take in a matinee. With the vampires dormant during the daytime, he breaks into a movie theater, spools a film in the projection booth, and then sits back in the best seat in the house to take in a viewing of the documentary Woodstock. And as the film slogs on, he sits there gnashing his teeth and weeping. O, what might've been, is the anguished sentiment we're meant to take from this. We were on the brink of paradise. If only things hadn't gone so horribly, unexpectedly wrong.

Knowing what we do about Heston's own politics, it makes for -- among Omega Man's many surreal and nonsensical moments -- the film's most ironically enjoyable and deeply bizarre scene.**

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The Kinks didn't have the most stellar commercial run in the 1970s. Among their many efforts that floundered in the marketplace was the band's Preservation Acts 1 & 2; a pair of albums released in 1973 and the following year in which Ray Davies attempted to revisit and expand the group's 1968 masterpiece The Village Green Preservation Society.

Village Green may arguably be among the top five most perfect pop albums ever recorded, the result of Davies hitting his stride and fully finding his voice as a songwriter. All of that aside, the album didn't meet with the hugest success in its day, at least not when stacked aside the mind-blown accolades that were heaped on, say, Sgt Peppers or Beggars Banquet. It especially didn't fare greatly in the U.S.. One reason being that The Kinks couldn't tour stateside to support the album, on account of being banned over alleged business disputes. The other reason being that the album's lyrical content was just way "too English" to register with many American listeners.

But there also were issues of form that probably counted as strikes against the album. Part of Davies' maturation as a songwriter meant branching out into a number of different styles, a good many of which harkened back to the popular music of years gone by. As Davies would later admit, he never saw anything wrong with writing a song his parents might like -- in fact, it's something he ften aimed to do. In the context of the youth culture of the 1960s, this was probably one of the most egregious act an artist could commit. How "counter-revolutionary" could you get? Pure anathema to the temper of the era, and to many of its criterial imperatives (or whatever).

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The Who played Woodstock, and they reportedly loathed every minute of it. Apparently there was one moment they did enjoyed -- that being when Pete Townshend planted a boot in Abbie Hoffman's ass and sent him sailing headlong into the photographers' pit.

By some accounts, Woodstock was hardly all it was cracked up to be; a far cry from the "Paradise Now" that its later enshrinement would have many believe. Among other things, there were a fair number of crap acts shoved onto the bill, padding out the roster and marking time between the scattered greatest-hits highlights. One such aspiring act was a group that would actually go on to have a modest career in the 1970s was the doo-wop revivalist group Sha Na Na -- a novelty act and admittedly odd choice as last-minute bill-filler, especially seeing how they'd yet to record an album and wound up playing directly before Jimi Hendrix. To hear some tell it, the group's act didn't go over so well with a number of people in the audience, who booed throughout the band's set.

Nostalgia was, to a certain degree, an uncommon sentiment at the time. The 1950s and 1960s had little use for it. If you were born before WWII, what did you have to look back to -- the Great Depression? If you were that generation's offspring, why look back to the previous decade, to a time of bomb shelters and not being allowed to view Elvis from the waist down? Modern life, as typified by the 1950s and 1960s, meant just that -- it was all about the present, and about the future that was being made in the present, a future that could only be better, brighter, faster. All the promises and potential of today coming to full why bother looking back?

Sha Na Na would a fairly popular act, having --- for a time -- a "wholesome" and moderately successful syndicated TV show, a handful of albums to their credit, and the group's frontman Bowzer making the rounds as a guest celebrity on Hollywood Squares and a number of other afternoon game shows. All of which makes sense perfect sense in a certain context. As the country's postwar industrial boom waned and the economy went to shit, nostalgia became a central figure on the cultural landscape -- American Graffiti, Happy Days, Grease, etc.

An ironic fantasy scenario: If only the members of Sha Na Na had returned a little of the atavism they'd received from those disapproving members of the Woodstock audience, perhaps slipping into the attitude of the New York blue-collar street tough costumes they'd later adopt, and heckled back: "Oh yeah? Well how 'bout you all go fuck yourselves? You people think you know where it's at? You don't. The future ain't now, the future was buncha fuckin' morons."

If only. But hey, I guess we'll always have Altamont, right?

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* Admittedly, competition is a bit heavy in this category.
** But Heston got to carry an ace gun around through most of the movie; so I reckon as far as he was concerned, it all balanced out in the end.


David K Wayne said...

I read somewhere that Sha-Na-Na were quite big with the blue collar crowd - who had no time for the upper middle-class reveries of hippies. The kind of kids who skipped college and went straight into 'hands-on' work. For whom 'the 60s' meant something very different, ending pretty much as they begun. 'Greasers' etc. Apparently hippies steered way clear of their gigs, more for fear of the crowd than anything else. With some exceptions, like the more rough'n'ready Detroit rock scene.

I did read this from a 60s 'vet' who insisted that Sha-Na-Na was the true sound of the proletariat, and thought drugs, flowers & free love were just bourgeois baby-indulgences getting in the way of revolution, so I'm aware he probably had some agenda to push.

I'm looking to Phil to pitch in here...

Greyhoos said...

Had never heard that, but it doesn't sound surprising. (In fact, sounds a little too unsurprising, knowwhatimean?)

Can't say I know too much about their torus & such. I just remember their TV show in the mid '70s. You could say it was cultural niche-filler, popular with a audiences the way "The Lawrence Welk Show" or "Hee Haw" were (generationally speaking) popular with others.

And the myth had it for years that they were roundly booed offstage at Woodstock. But it seems that was hardly the case.

David K Wayne said...

Yeah well that guy's statements were more about Sha-Na_Na being the hippie's bete noire in the heady days of 1968/69 (think it may have been in answer to Rolling Stone pieties if I remember rightly).

By the mid-70s I suppose everything 60s was co-opted into processed cheese or at least blockbuster money-making machines. Except people like Iggy maybe, injecting heroin in his dick and eating out of dumpsters until Bowie gave him a wash.

Greyhoos said...

>"Except people like Iggy maybe, ... until Bowie gave him a wash."


I don't recall much nostalgia for the '60s kicking until until the 1980s. But if anything, the "culture wars" backlash against 'em kicked in almost immediately.

David K Wayne said...

Yeah the 50s keep battling the 60s with later decades as the big prize. When it's actually the 1920s running off with the trophy. Talk about Retromania!

Funny - the Ramones just came to mind w/r to Sha-Na-Na. Maybe if you put all the punk hype to one side, the Ramones have more in common with metroretros like Bette Midler, Manhattan Transfer, (early) Pointer Sisters & Dr. Buzzard. When I saw the Ramones on TV as a kid, I associated them more with Grease or Laverne & Shirley than the Sex Pistols.

A lot of punk/post-punk was incorrigibly nostalgic wasn't it? From 50s cold war kitsch to the Victoriana aspects of goth etc. For all the scorched earth rhetoric, there was a helluva lot of po-mo decade reshuffling. As much a creation of TV babies as hiphop.

From the title, I take it this post will be having a sequel then?

Greyhoos said...

Wasn't planning on it, no. If anything, that's a reference to all the recent discussion of "retromania" that Simon's book has sparked. Although I think the whole matter of nostalgia for the '50s had a much sharper political aspect to it...obviously dovetailing with the conservative backlash that was gathering momentum (and with the myths that threaded that movement).

But I suppose one could riff on this topic at length. For instance: What about Paul Williams's character in The Phantom of the Paradise -- the music mogul whose Big Project was the marketing of a '50s revival act. Hmmm, was that directed at anyone in particular?

And'd mention the matter of the '20s to me before. It prompted me to wonder: Yeah, what was the deal with all those 1970s screen adaptations of John Steinbeck novels, and all the other period films that dealt with the Great Depression and (occasionally) organized labor? Batting that topic about w/ a friend, his theory was that it maybe had to do with Americans looking back to a culture of "hard times" and the days of "good, honest work" at a time when the U.S. economy was making the anxious and uncertain shift into the post-Fordist/service-industry unknown. Dunno -- some might consider that a bit too reductive and archly materialist of a reading, but I can't help but think there's more than a little something to it.

And as far a punk "trad" throwbacks go -- how 'bout those first couple of Blondie records?

David K Wayne said...

Yeah Blondie - or indeed the Cramps and the whole Rockabilly/surf/Brill Building revivals shortly after. Ramones-meet-Phil Spector etc. But I suppose artier glam stars like Roxy and Bowie had aspects of Noel Coward/Ivor Novello kitsch too.

I reckon a lot of those 20s/30s based films were due to 60s hangover - New Left, corporate power, youthful disillusion etc. Lot of them about youths rebelling during Great Depression but pretty bleak endings too. At least til mid-decade. But then the more affectionate nostalgia/parodyish stuff seemed to cater for similar audiences too. Like Bogdanovich or The Sting. Wasn't there even a Ragtime revival from that? I dimly remember hearing publishers had high hopes for Doctorow's mid-70s book of the same name, via vague association with the craze.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Wasn't planning on it, no."

Well, that's a bummer.

Phil Knight said...

Ray Davies tried to commit suicide in 1973 (over marital problems mainly), and his brother Dave reckons that he was never the same afterwards.

I've always been meaning to check out The Kinks' Seventies stuff - I don't really like their "good" era, so there's always an outside chance that the "bad" stuff is more to my taste.

It's a funny thing though, but back in the late Eighties when I used to spend half my time in second hand record shops, The Kinks' Seventies records would never turn up - it was like they had all been vapourised into nothingness.

Greyhoos said...

> Well, that's a bummer.

I'll take it from that that I should give it more consideration(?). I was just blowing -- with the aid of a few belts of scotch -- a few random, moldering thoughts out of the attic. I expect others will come to mind, though. So we'll see.

@ Wayne: Re, the Cramps: The difference being that Lux interior was old enough to have lived through the '50s the first time around.

@ Phil: Could be worth wading through, I suspect. Never done it myself. Not too many years ago, The "Preservation Acts" LPs made the rep of being a low for them, of being absolutely not worth bother with 'cept for hardcore completists. Yet more recently they were deemed worthy of reissue. So I suppose they have their merits.

David K Wayne said...

Ray Davies was the 60s prophet of Thatcherism. Well a lot of those beat combos were really (Beatles' "Taxman" etc), but the Kinks were quite conscious of the mythology that would sustain the resurgence of the Right. That odd mockery of 'the establishment' and love/hate of US pop culture mixed with sentimental little England nostalgia. Probably why they were the main lyrical reference point from The Jam to Smiths to Blur.

Greyhoos said...

Right, that whole "social observer" school of English pop songwriting (to which, I suppose, one could sort-of add Andy Partridge). Thing is, many of the those later songwriters were frequently pretty harsh and mocking about their subjects, whereas Davies's lyrics often contained a great deal of pathos and tenderness.

David K Wayne said...

That ironic, sober, asexual strain in British pop. All about wryness, resignation, moderation and distance - unlike heavier rock, glam continuum or dance-based musics.

Greyhoos said...

@ Wayne: Concerning Ramones, etc. Yeah, the conventional history/cliché about first-gen punk -- the way it cut through the bloated, pompous bullshit of rock in the 1970s, aiming to return the music to some semblance of its original energy and directness.

Thing is, punks didn't conjure this attitude out of thin air. If you revisit a variety of stuff from the early half of the decade, seems like it's a desire that could be commonly found lurking (in one form or another) in the wings in a lot of other, more conventional, quarters -- early Eagles, early Doobie Brothers, the Bob Seger System, eventually Bruce Springsteen, & etc etc.

Which is probably the reason why a number of veteran/prior-gen rock artists like Neil Young et al embraced punk -- or at least gave it lip service -- when it arrived on the scene. They saw it as a necessary corrective. (After all, many of them had spent the past several years fending off rec-company pressure to do something that might move more units -- to pander to changing contempo tastes, be more "marketable," maybe even cut a disco tune, etc.)

David K Wayne said...

Yeah - Springsteen and Lou Reed had more mutual appreciation than punk mythology would have it. Even Hall & Oates were about a return to 'straight' pre-Beatles pop and rock at first. The return to meat'n'potatoes rock'n'roll. A lot of the Year Zero mythologising was very British, fashion-led (or later hyped up by mythologising US/UK rock journos).