Swedish Popular Music: “I Don’t Care, I Love It”

AviciiLately, it seems that every time I hop in the car I hear the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii come on the radio. So I was wondering, who’s this guy with the Latin sounding name? After a few minutes of searching the Interweb, I found out two things: 1) Avicii is the pseudonym of Swedish electro-dance producer and DJ Tim Bergling, and 2) Avicii is not Latin at all, but a word that means the lowest level of hell in Buddhism. Now I’m no expert on Buddhism, but from what I understand, once there, you can’t escape that level of hell. What those connotations have to do with this artist’s music, I’m not going to even hazard a guess! Personally, I find it kind of catchy.

At just 24, Avicii has already been a star in Europe for several years. With “Wake Me Up,” he’s the third Swedish act to land a tune in Billboard’s top ten in the past year, following Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” Before those acts hit the U.S. top ten, it’d been a long time since a Swedish artist had accomplished the feat. You have to go all the way back to 1996-97, when Robyn had a pair of singles that each rose to number seven. While it remains to be seen whether Avicii , or Icona Pop, will become fixtures on U.S. music charts  (Swedish House Mafia had already announced their imminent breakup prior to the release of “Don’t You Worry Child” in 2012), Swedish acts are hitting the American singles charts the hardest they have in many years.

Despite the fifteen-year gap in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, many Swedish acts have achieved a notable level of success in the United States during the interim. Those artists include Alcazar, Basshunter, The Cardigans, The Hives, Lykke Li, Opeth, Eric Prydz, and The Sounds. The names in that list cover many different musical genres, proving that popular music in Sweden isn’t limited to a particular style. That said, however, I find it interesting that the Swedish acts that found massive mainstream success in the United States all fall into a pretty narrow range: mixed-gender pop/dance groups accenting female vocals.

Ace of BaseThe most recent of these Swedish superstars is Ace of Base, who stormed onto the scene in 1992 with the album The Sign (originally released in Europe as Happy Nation, with a slightly different track listing) which became one of the best-selling debut albums in recording history. Comprised of Ulf “Buddha” Ekberg and siblings Jonas “Joker” Berggren, Malin “Linn” Berggren and Jenny Berggren, Ace of Base placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, including the number one title track from their American debut disc. Worldwide, Ace of Base has sold over fifty million albums, making them the third-bestselling Swedish act of all time.

Roxette is a duo made up of vocalist Marie Fredriksson and songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Per Gessle. Fredriksson and Gessle came together after successful stints in other groups, but each one’s previous success in their native Sweden was nothing compared to what they’d achieve together. In the three years covering 1989-91, Roxette was a hit machine in the United States and throughout the world. Stateside, they had four singles shoot to number one while another pair peaked at two. Their career has continued far longer in Europe than it has here, but with worldwide album sales of over seventy million, Roxette is the second-bestselling Swedish act ever.

As popular as the two aforementioned bands have been, they never even approached the spectacular heights achieved by ABBA between 1972 and 1982. From almost the very beginning, ABBA – whose name is an acronym of the band members’ names:  (A)gnetha Fältskog, (B)jörn Ulvaeus, (B)enny Andersson, and (A)nni-Frid Lyngstad – was  an absolute sensation in Europe and throughout most of the English-speaking world.  The band certainly had plenty of success in the states, too, though not nearly as much as one might expect. They only placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, with just one reaching number one (“Dancing Queen”). Throughout their career, and for some years after, it just wasn’t cool to like ABBA in this country. Perhaps the nation’s ABBAcollective mood during that time – due to the Watergate Scandal, the Oil Crisis, rising unemployment and inflation rates, the Farm Crisis, etc. – was such that many Americans weren’t in the proper temper for such bright, bouncy tunes.

The general assessment of ABBA’s output, however, appeared to shift significantly in the early nineties. At that point, several contemporary American artists covered ABBA songs, a couple of popular Australian movie imports (Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) highlighted ABBA tunes, and ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits was released, which has been a consistent seller ever since. By the end of the decade, the musical Mamma Mia! had landed on U.S. stages, continuously playing venues throughout the next decade, and followed in 2008 by a film version starring Meryl Streep. Suddenly it was cool to like, even love, ABBA. On March 15, 2010, the band was fully legitimized when it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite the fact that they never officially disbanded, the group has not recorded together in over thirty years. Even so, ABBA has sold over 300 million albums worldwide, easily making them the most successful Swedish act of all time, as well as one of the planet’s biggest acts, period.

Before I bring this blog entry to a close, I’ll also mention a couple of Swedish rock bands that had a taste of mainstream success in the United States. Seventies pop/rock cover band Blue Swede holds the distinction of being the first Swedish music act to score a number one single in America. They did so with a remake of the B.J. Thomas hit “Hooked on a Feeling” in April 1974. Although you may not remember the band, you may well remember the “ooga-chaka ooga-chaka” background chant that they cribbed from English singer Jonathan King’s earlier cover version. Blue Swede hit the top ten again later that same year with a cover of The Association‘s “Never My Love” before disbanding in 1975. In the mid-to- late 1980s, the hard rock band Europe was Sweden’s apparent answer to the American arena rock/hair metal trend of that period. Europe placed four songs on the U.S. top forty singles chart (two of those rising to the top ten) and had two albums reach the U.S. top twenty albums chart. Europe remains an active recording and touring act still popular throughout… well, Europe.

Visit the Des Moines Public Library for thousands upon thousands of CD titles across every musical genre. CDs have a three-week checkout period, no limit above the overall fifty-item limit, and – best of all – they’re free!

The Mockumentary: The Long and Short of It

No doubt about it, This Is Spinal Tap was one of funniest movies of the eighties. Why stop there? I’d say it’s one of the funniest movies ever! Written by and starring, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner (who also directed), This Is Spinal Tap is the story of an up-and-down rock band across two decades. Often referred to as just Spinal Tap, its actual full title is This is Spinal Tap®: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi. Although its title calls it a This Is Spinal Tap“rockumentary,” this is the first movie that I recall being referred to as a “mockumentary,” as Reiner described it in contemporary interviews. The term, which surprisingly dates to the mid-sixties, conjoins the words “mock” and “documentary” to describe a work that parodies a subject via a distinct filmic style. This is Spinal Tap parodies metal bands that take themselves too seriously, while simultaneously poking fun at the documentary process itself.

The origins of the mockumentary are unclear. The seeds of the style date back at least to the 1950s, when variety shows would often use sketch comedy to lampoon current topics and public figures.  For instance, early television innovator Steve Allen – on the appropriately titled The Steve Allen Show – staged fake interviews with members of his comedy troupe for the ongoing “Man in the Street” segments. He also created a send-up of NBC’s nightly network news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which in his hands became “The Nutley-Hinkley Report.”

The difference between parody and mockumentary is that the latter takes it a step or two further. Whereas a parody is executed with the performers giving a literal or figurative wink at the audience indicating that they’re fully in on the joke, a mockumentary is carried out with straight faces, requiring the viewer to determine where the humor is contained. Mockumentaries are also created by copying a specific filming style that, in some cases, blurs the lines between truth and fiction even more.  In fact, upon the release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, some people thought that Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was an actual documentary.

A Hard Day's NightPerhaps the first film that can be categorized as a mockumentary is director Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which seemingly records events occurring over a few days in the life of The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Four years later, satirist Pat Paulsen, a regular on TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, launched a mock presidential campaign as a running gag on the show. Paulsen, with his usual deadpan delivery, used lies, double-talk, and attacks on other candidates, to poke fun at the campaign process. It culminated in his own TV-movie, Pat Paulsen for President, which was narrated by iconic actor Henry Fonda! That mostly-forgotten program, however, provided the blueprint for the mockumentary format.

Stand-up comedian Woody Allen directed his feature-length debut in 1969 with Take the Money and Run, which documented the story of bungling bank robber Virgil Starkwell. Allen returned Real Lifeto the style twice later in his career: 1983’s Zelig and 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. In 1978, Monty Python’s Eric Idle wrote and co-directed The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a send-up of The Beatles. Idle also starred as one of the members of the imaginary rock band (fellow Python Michael Palin also had a supporting role), while much of the extended cast was made up of Saturday Night Live players. Albert Brooks, who has his own SNL connection and is sometimes called “The West Coast Woody Allen,” made his directorial debut, like Allen, with a mockumentary. In 1979’s Real Life: An American Comedy, Brooks drew direct inspiration from PBS’ pioneering 1973 documentary series An American Family.

Since helping to popularize the comedy subgenre with This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to create a cottage industry of sorts with a continuing line of mockumentaries. Guest Waiting for Guffmandirected, co-wrote (with co-star Eugene Levy), and starred in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, 2000’s Best in Show,  and 2003’s A Mighty Wind. Those films took on the subjects of small-town community theater productions, upscale dog shows, and folk music, respectively. Although they are not blockbuster hits, they have a proven audience, and all have received critical plaudits.

The biggest sleeper hit of 2006 was probably writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The story of a supposed Kazakh TV reporter who is sent to the United States to make a documentary about American life and culture, however, drew criticism from several quarters. Baron Cohen, a TV star in his native England, was able to dupe countless Americans into believing his cover story, making many of them look incredibly foolish in their filmed interviews.

The OfficeDespite the success of Guest’s films and of Baron Cohen’s film, the use of the mockumentary style has mostly shifted to TV sitcoms in recent years. The first to use it to great success was the original, British version of The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, which ran from 2001-2003. To date, it has spawned additional versions in seven other countries:  The United States, France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden. The American version of The Office debuted in March 2005 and was an immediate hit.  It ran for nine seasons, propelled several cast members to stardom, and received six nominations for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, winning once.

You might think that The Office would have become so identified with the mockumentary style that no other television show producers would dare use it again so soon. Surprisingly, that Parks & Recreationdidn’t prove to be the case, at all. In 2009, two more mockumentary sitcoms debuted – and both also found success!  NBC’s Parks and Recreation bowed in April of that year and recently began its sixth season, having been nominated once for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. ABC’s Modern Family, premiered in September 2009, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series each of its first four seasons. Apparently, the mockumentary is a comedic style that Americans just aren’t tiring of quickly.

Mockumentary, parody, straight comedy, or otherwise, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of movie and TV series titles from which to choose. DVDs rent for $2.00 apiece, checkout for one week, and no longer have a limit other than the fifty-item overall limit. Come in and checkout as many as you can carry!

The Family Business: Country Music Style

Miley Cyrus apparently subscribes to the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The former star of Disney TV’s Hannah Montana set the media abuzz with her surprisingly raw dance routine on the recent Video Music Miley CyrusAwards telecast. Of course, had Katy Perry or Lady Gaga performed that same routine, there would probably be far less scrutiny, but this was a bit of a shocker from the previously untarnished twenty-year-old. Riding high with the current number one single “Wrecking Ball” on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, Cyrus seems determined to shed her squeaky clean teen image in favor of a rather salacious adult persona. 

I suppose that you can’t blame Miley Cyrus from wanting to make the break. Billy Ray CyrusAfter all, she’s actually trying to distance herself from two things: her teen image and her country singer/actor father, Billy Ray Cyrus. I assume that it’s difficult to sell yourself as a pop diva when many still think of a line dance craze at the mention of the name Cyrus. Billy Ray, of course, is probably still best remembered for creating that craze with his monster hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” way back in 1992. Although he has twelve studio albums to his credit, none has repeated the incredible success of his debut disc, Some Gave All. For over a decade now, he has focused much of his attention on acting. Among other roles, he starred as a Montana physician who took a job in New York City in the PAX  TV (now ION Television) show Doc, which ran from 2001-04, and as the on-screen father of his real-life daughter’s Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana dual character from 2006-11. 

Miley is far from the first progeny of a country singer to make a name in her/his own right in the music field. Surprisingly, however, she is the only one that I could discover who had not followed a country music icon into that same genre. Whereas Billy Ray is undeniably a country singer (who also cut some religious discs, but in a country style), Miley is clearly a pop singer. Apparently, this is a rare occurrence, as my check of similar parent/child music performers across all genres showed that the apple rarely falls far from the tree. One such example of disparate genres is John Raitt, the late star of several major Broadway musicals, and his daughter Bonnie Raitt, who became a blues-rock musician. Another is Ravi Shankar, the recently-deceased sitar virtuoso, and his daughter Norah Jones, who opted for a career as a jazz vocalist/keyboardist. A third might be singer-pianist Nat King Cole and his daughter singer Natalie Cole, but Nat, who started in jazz and ventured into pop, shared much musical territory with Natalie, who started in R&B and soul, before moving into pop and jazz. 

Despite Miley’s spurning country for pop, several country music icons have had offspring who have followed in their footsteps and become stars in their own right. Depending on your age, you probably rate either Hank Williams or Johnny Cash as the most iconic figure in the history of country music. Either way, those superstars would be a difficult act to follow, and yet, both had a child who managed to get out of the shadow of their famous father and into a spotlight of their own. 

Hiram King “Hank” Williams was the first superstar of the genre, as he took what had previously been referred to as “hillbilly” music onto the national stage in the 1950s, writing several dozen classic honky tonk tunes before Hank Williamsdrinking himself to death at age twenty-nine! His son, Hank Williams, Jr. (born Randall Hank Williams), started out as a sort of Hank Williams tribute performer, but after some mild success doing that – and having first to overcome his own fondness for drink and drugs – went on to become one of the most popular country artists of his generation. He found his own voice in the outlaw country style, with his long career peaking in the 1980s. Junior’s son, Hank Williams, III (born Shelton Hank Williams), has followed in the rebel footsteps of his forbearers, acquiring a considerable reputation for enjoying a certain naturally growing “weed.” Hank the Third started his music career in punk and hardcore bands, but more recently has drifted in and out of the traditional honky tonk style, often creating a hybrid of honky tonk and rock that generally gets him labeled as an alt-country artist. 

Johnny Cash (born J.R. Cash, as his parents couldn’t decide on a name!) enjoyed a half-century career yet his reputation seems to continue growing even a decade after his death. Like the Williams clan, Cash also went down the Johnny Cashdark path of alcohol and drugs, with alternating periods of living under the influence and being sober. Nevertheless, he remained productive through it all, releasing dozens of albums and writing over 1,000 songs. Perhaps country’s first “outlaw,” Cash was a genre-bending artist who embraced the poor and downtrodden. With his first wife, The Man in Black fathered Rosanne Cash, but had little contact with her until she graduated high school. Rosanne then spent the next three years serving in various non-musical and increasingly important musical capacities on her father’s cross-country tours, learning her lessons well. Starting in the late 1970s she began releasing critically lauded, but infrequent albums in the neo-traditionalist vein, spawning several number one hits and earning recognition for her own remarkable songwriting skill. 

Johnny Cash’s second wife was June Carter, a member of The Carter Family, The Carter Familyoften acknowledged as “The First Family of Country Music.” June’s mother, Maybelle, was one of the founding members of The Carter Family, originally a folk/gospel trio that was one of the most important artists in the creation of country music during the 1920s and 1930s. Starting in the 1940s, June spent over half a century working in the family business. With first husband, Carl “Mister Country” Smith, one of the most popular stars of the 1950s, June had daughter Carlene Carter. Like her mother, Carlene began her career as a member of The Carter Family, but had her greatest success as a solo artist during the 1990s as a neo-traditionalist.

Lorrie-Morgan-2009-300-01Country crooner George Morgan was the singer of the 1949 number one hit “Candy Kisses,” the first of his twenty-three singles that would reach the country top forty. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a long-time member of the Grand Old Opry, Morgan was the final artist to sing on stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and the first to sing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House, when the venerable program moved to its new digs in 1974. George’s daughter, Lorrie Morgan, was a major star of the late-eighties and throughout the nineties, achieving three number ones among her fourteen top ten singles.

Mel Tillis is primarily known for two things, possessing one of the most Pam Tillisbeautiful voices in country music, and having one of the most severe stutters of any public figure. As a songwriter, he is one of the most covered artists in country music history, penning dozens of hits from the late-fifties forward. In the 1970s, Tillis became one of Nashville’s biggest stars. By the time his career was winding down in the 1990s, he’d had six number ones and another thirty top ten country hits.  By then, his daughter, Pam Tillis, had become a star and was making her own mark on the country charts.  By the start of the new millennium, Pam had had a number one hit of her own, as well as another dozen top ten country hits. 

Like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings was one of the main figures in the outlaw country Waylon Jenningsmovement of the 1970s. In fact, there was a previous connection between the two, as they once shared a Nashville apartment and, by their own admissions, large quantities of amphetamines. Although he was already a successful musician, Jennings didn’t become a superstar until he gained complete creative control over his recordings in the mid-seventies.  In 1969, Jennings met and married Jessi Colter, who went on to her own successful music career as one of the few women to be part of the outlaw movement. Their only child, Shooter Jennings (born Waylon Albright Jennings) is currently an alt-country star. 

Whether you’re looking for classic or current country music stars, we have them in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library. Browse our shelves, or browse our catalog, for hundreds of country titles. With our new, higher-limit CD policy, you can check out up to fifty discs at a time. So come to the library and get your country on!

The Financial Crisis of 2008 on Film

It’s been five years since the height, or should I say the depth, of the Financial Crisis of 2008, the worst in America since The Great Depression almost eighty years earlier. The collapse, or near collapse, of several national banks and major brokerage houses precipitated the resulting Wall Street crash, which has affected every one of us. For some, it’s been severe and direct, for others it’s been moderate and indirect, but no one has escaped its consequences. At Wall Streetworst, people have become unemployed, been evicted from their homes, lost their health insurance coverage, and/or significant portions of their life savings. Others may have not seen a pronounced change in their current lifestyle, but have been forced to put retirement plans on hold in order to maintain it. Even those who didn’t lose money themselves are still affected by the loss of governmental services, as a result of suddenly lowered tax bases.

The crisis actually began with the bursting of the housing bubble, which peaked in 2006, causing a domino effect on related financial industries.  According to the Senate Financial Crisis Report, 2011 (aka  the Levin–Coburn Report), the meltdown was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” By the time all was said and done, trillions of dollars of personal wealth had been lost by American citizens, and a global financial crisis had been triggered. Despite the far-reaching effects of the downturn, only marginal efforts have been made in terms of (re)regulating American finance, or bringing any of the culprits to justice. Many of us still have a lot of unanswered questions regarding this calamity.

My quick summary above is meant only to be an entry point into this topic. I’m not an expert on high finance, and I don’t pretend to be. If you too are still searching for a better understanding of what happened and why, but don’t have time to trudge through some dry, thousand-page, highly pedantic account of this subject, then I’ve got an alternate route for you. Filmic attempts to explain the crisis began appearing from the earliest days of the debacle. Several first-rate documentaries have been produced that do a stellar job of elucidating the major causes of the crisis. The following titles are owned by the Des Moines Public Library. You can find them among the non-fiction DVDs. They carry a Dewey Decimal number denoting their subject matter (the economy), which in this case is the 330s. If you look for a left or right bias in any of these titles, you’ll likely find one; that’s unavoidable, but each one presents its case in a reasonable, rational manner. As a group, I believe that they cover the main arguments from either side of the American political spectrum.

Maxed OutMaxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2006) – Produced and released in the midst of the bursting housing bubble, this doc details how American wealth has been built as a “house of cards” that can’t help but collapse. It makes clear how predatory lenders offer credit cards to those who can least afford to pay them off, making card holders lifelong customers often able to pay only the minimum balance. Too easily acquired home and auto loans are also addressed.

IOUSAI.O.U.S.A. (2008) – Released in late-August 2008, the month prior to the ultimate unraveling of the national banks and investment banking institutions, I.O.U.S.A. predicted the collapse based on various factors at play in the market at the time. Original interviews, with such heavyweight figures as Warren Buffett, Paul O’Neill, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin, lend credence to the filmmakers’ conclusions.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) – Populist filmmaker Michael Moore ventures Capitalism - A Love Storyout to show the human impact of the financial meltdown. Moore visits several locales and interviews numerous average Americans whose lives have been upended by corporate greed run amok. Afterwards, he seeks answers to why this can occur in a Democratic society by going to Washington and Wall Street, where governmental leaders and corporate heads are less than forthcoming. In the final section of the film he outlines some strategies for change that have been employed successfully in other Western nations.

Inside JobInside Job (2010) – If you have time to see only one film about the financial crisis, this one is it! Narrated by Matt Damon, Charles Ferguson’s fine overview of the financial crisis won the “Best Documentary, Features” Oscar in 2011. Pointed interviews, well-chosen graphics, extensive research and worldwide locations are used to explain the global economic meltdown in an easily understood fashion. On top of all of that, it’s a surprisingly sleek film for a documentary, with crisp, gleaming photography that suggests the budget of a high-production-value Hollywood movie.

The FlawThe Flaw (2011) – The title derives from a famous quote by Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in which he admitted before the U.S. Congress that he put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets, convincing him not to impose regulation on the then-current risky mortgage lending practices. That flaw, the film contends, is people’s greedy nature and their willingness to swindle people if it means they will profit from it personally. Although the film takes its subject seriously, it also uses selected film clips (especially old cartoon segments) to add humor to the otherwise heavy mix.

Few narrative movies have been made that dramatize the financial crisis. Perhaps the subject is too massive to easily, and successfully, cram into a two-hour window. Or, maybe Hollywood types think it’s too much of a downer to appeal to audiences. In any case, at this time there are only a pair of movies that deal directly with events of that period that I can recommend (several other films, including Up in the Air, The Company Men, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, deal with it only peripherally or incidentally). Find the following titles in our regular DVD collection.

To Big to FailToo Big to Fail (2011) – HBO produced this reenactment of events during September 2008 when there appeared there would be further banking/brokerage house failures in the wake of the demise of Lehman Brothers. William Hurt stars as Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and centers on his efforts to create a federal government bailout that will prevent additional failures and help restore consumer confidence in Wall Street.

Margin CallMargin Call (2011) – Margin Call is an ensemble thriller offering a 24-hour window into an investment bank (read: Lehman) at the height of the financial crisis. It’s more focused on dramatics than on getting details right, but it does provide Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci ample opportunity to display their considerable talents.

Hair and the Rock Musical

HairOne of the most ubiquitous images of the late-sixties and early seventies was the orange, green, and yellow psychedelic poster for the musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. I was too young to actually know what Hair was about. All I knew was that it was something big and that it was very controversial. What I didn’t know at the time was that several songs that I was familiar with as radio staples were from that production, having all debuted in 1969, the year following Hair’s Broadway debut. Three Dog Night took “Easy to Be Hard” to number four, Oliver pushed “Good Morning Starshine” to number three, The Cowsills shot to number two with “Hair,” and The Fifth Dimension enjoyed a six-week stay at number one with the medley “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”

Hair was conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who had met while appearing in a short-lived off-Broadway play in 1964. To help fill time between acting gigs, they decided to write a play that would try to capture the growing counter-culture movement of the sixties. Later, they were introduced to composer Galt McDermott, who set their words to music. Hair originally opened off-Broadway as the debut production of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater on October 17, 1967. After a six-week run there, Papp and new co-producer Michael Butler moved it to The Cheetah, a discothèque located on 53rd and Broadway, for 45 performances starting December 22. Following that second off-Broadway run, Hair had a hiatus during which it was thoroughly revised, including the addition of 13 new songs and the introduction of nudity.

When Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968 it became the first rock musical to play The Great White Way, and very possibly the first to play anywhere. Its loose tale of a “tribe” of young hippies touched on numerous topics that were still considered taboo by the majority of the American populace:  anti-Vietnam War stance, Hair DVDrecreational drug use, sexual freedom, religious irreverence, and environmentalism. Much of the stagecraft was experimental (a spare, gray set scrawled with graffiti, overly stylized hippie costuming, “psychedelic” lighting) and the acting was unconventional, using improvisational techniques and repeatedly breaking the “fourth wall.” Most of all, it had exuberant music: edgy lyrics and captivating melodies. The result was a work that defied nearly every musical and theatrical convention – and it was a sensation. Curious crowds quickly made it Broadway’s biggest hit.

Butler, a Chicago businessman, was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War who was considering a run for the U.S. Senate on an anti-war platform at the time he stumbled onto the Public Theater version of Hair. He soon gave up his political aspirations and instead used the musical to further his anti-war agenda. The Broadway run of Hair lasted an impressive 1,750 performances, though its longevity was no doubt diminished by its success elsewhere. Butler licensed productions in virtually every major U.S. city. At one point, concurrently-running versions were playing in nine American cities, while national touring companies simultaneously crisscrossed the country. The staging of Hair in London’s West End ran an equally astonishing 1,997 performances. The creators continued to write additional songs that made their way into various versions playing throughout North America and the world. Many of the regional U.S. and international versions were even tailored with topical and/or local references to appeal to their specific audiences.

In the meantime, dozens of cast albums were recorded, with the original Broadway cast album becoming a multi-platinum smash and a Grammy winner for Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album. In addition to those mentioned above, literally hundreds of other cover recordings were made by popular musicians ranging from Barbra Streisand to Sérgio Mendes. Between the licensing of the many productions and the music royalties, all of the principals involved in the show became wealthy. Subsequent revivals have continued to thrust the musical back into the public eye.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how much effect Hair actually had on turning national sentiment against the Vietnam War, as there were many factors, but it’s safe to say that it was a contributing cause.  By the time master filmmaker Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) adapted Hair for cinema screens in 1979, the show’s moment had passed, and the movie was only a marginal success. To this day, however, the stage version continues to be regarded as one of the best artistic works to depict the mood of the radical sixties.

Hair’s success, naturally, spawned a wave of rock musicals hoping for similar fortunes. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Grease, Pippin, The Rocky Horror Show, The Wiz, and Evita were all launched in the early to mid-seventies and attained Hair New Albumconsiderable popularity, either on Broadway, the West End, or both. In fact, many theatre critics of the time predicted that rock music would be the norm for stage musicals going forward.  That, however, did not prove to be the case. After an initial flood of productions, rock musicals slowed to a trickle by the latter part of the decade, with none attaining the massive success of the aforementioned titles.

The eighties and nineties produced a few very notable rock musicals – Little Shop of Horrors, Chess, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, and Rent, but those were exceptions. Audiences were increasingly turning to gargantuan productions featuring more traditional, pop-oriented musical fare, such as 42nd Street, La Cage aux Folles, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, The Lion King, and Jekyll & Hyde.

In more recent years, rock musicals written expressly for the stage have become a great rarity. Generally, rock musicals are now adapted from pre-existing works. These so-called “jukebox” musicals have been popular with audiences, perhaps only because the tunes are already proven hits. Examples include Tommy (by The Who’s Pete Townshend), Smokey Joe’s Café (by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and their collaborators), Jersey Boys (by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, based on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), Rock of Ages (featuring hits of eighties arena rockers), and American Idiot (by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong).

It’s impossible to predict how long these jukebox musicals will remain popular, but it’s interesting to note that as far as rock music is concerned, Broadway appears content to continue looking to the past, rather than at the present. The legacy of Hair – an incredibly bold statement about America’s youth during a highly contentious time in our nation’s history – has been cast aside by Broadway in favor of the tried and true, and safe.

If you love stage or film musicals, as well as movie soundtracks, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of titles available. They are conveniently grouped together in the Show Tunes section of the CDs.

“Our (Iowa) State Fair”

“Our state fair is a great state fair, don’t miss it, don’t even be late!” That’s right, it’s state fair time again in Iowa. For me, it brings back a lot of memories. My first experience with the Iowa State Fair was marching in the State Fair Parade as a member of the Mount Vernon High School band. That was back in the days when bands wore their full uniforms, no matter what the temperature. As I recall, it was 90 plus degrees that night. It was also at a time when no one had State Faireven heard of water bottles. If you were lucky, sometime prior to falling into rank, you found a drinking fountain and took enough gulps to last you a couple of hours. We proudly marched down Grand Avenue – as a trombone player I was in the front row – and we played our hearts out. We won our class (the small school one), but got edged out by one of the big school bands for the Governor’s Trophy, awarded to the best band over all.

The male bandsmen pitched tents in a farm field adjacent to the fairgrounds (the females stayed in the 4-H Club Girls’ Dormitory) and we goofed off most of the night. The highlight was an apple fight in the orchard next to us (my very late, but sincere apologies Mr. Farmer, as I suspect the $5.00 apiece you charged us for the camping space didn’t make up for the damage we did to your apple crop). We ran through the fairground gates when they opened the next morning and ventured through the fair until about mid-afternoon, when many of us were too exhausted to walk another step. We spent the remainder of the day dozing and slowly rocking in the rockers that lined the veranda of the 4-H Dorm. By the time the school buses were ready to load us for the return trip we were more than ready to board. All in all, however, it was a very good time.

The opening quote above was written by Oscar Hammerstein II. Together with composer Richard Rodgers, it’s part of the opening lyric for the song “State Fair,” from the musical of the same name. That song always reminds me of the Iowa State Fair and with good reason, the musical is set in Iowa. Now I don’t know Oklahoma!how much two New York City songwriters knew about either Iowa, or our state fair, but I consider it an honor that they chose to set it here. Actually, they based it on the Philip Stong novel and the screenplay for Fox Film Corporation’s 1933 movie starring Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers. Rodgers & Hammerstein, of course, were renowned for their wildly popular Broadway musicals, but State Fair wasn’t one of them. The score for State Fair was the only one they wrote expressly for Hollywood.

In 1945, 20th Century Fox produced State Fair starring Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews, though both were dubbed.  That wasn’t the case with the second leads, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine, who show off their considerable vocal talents. The score featured six compositions, one of which (“It Might as Well Be Spring”) went on to win the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. Directed by A-List director Walter Lang, it was filmed in gorgeous, saturated Technicolor. For the record, the 1962 version starring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, retooled by Rodgers after Hammerstein’s death in 1960, was reset to Texas.

As early as 1969, The Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis adapted the movie version for the stage under the direction of James Hammerstein (Oscar’s son), and with the supervision of Rodgers. The show was revived in July-August 1992 as part of the Broadway Preview Series at the North Carolina School of the Arts, South Pacificat the Stevens Center in Winston Salem. Strangely enough, I was at one of those early performances to review it for an area publication. From there, the show moved to the Long Beach Civic Light Opera in October 1992. Three years later, a restaged version opened at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines on August 12, in conjunction with the 1995 Iowa State Fair. A lengthy national tour followed, during which it was further tinkered with and refined.

The central problem with adapting State Fair to the stage was that six songs wasn’t nearly enough for a Broadway-style show. What had been done to remedy this during the early nineties was to add Rodgers & Hammerstein material from other sources to increase the size of the score. For instance, a song from the 1962 movie version, written by Rodgers alone, had been inserted, as well as a pair that they had written for Oklahoma!, but had not used. Other, lesser, scores that had been rare misfires for the team – Me and Juliet, Allegro, and Pipe Dream – were all mined for appropriate material. It wasn’t enough to find unknown Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, they had to be songs that could be integrated smoothly into the existing score.

The Broadway production, co-directed by James Hammerstein and Randy Skinner (also choreographed by Skinner) premiered on March 27, 1996 at the Music Box Theatre. That version ran for 110 performances and eight previews, and was nominated for two Tony Awards. The cast included John Davidson, Kathryn Crosby, Andrea McArdle, Ben Wright, The King and Iand Donna McKechnie. In Broadway terms, it was neither a hit, nor a flop, but it was probably still a disappointment. The thing that stands out to me most as the most glaring error is the miscasting of Davidson as the Frake family patriarch. Although Davidson is a Broadway veteran, he’s also an overly charming, pretty boy singer, and as far from my conception of an Iowa farmer as anyone could be.

Both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had had significantly successful careers prior to coming together as a team. Rodgers paired with Lorenz Hart for such major Broadway shows as A Connecticut Yankee, On Your Toes, and Pal Joey. Hammerstein had worked with various composers, but his greatest partnership was with Jerome Kern. Together, they wrote such hits as Show Boat, Sweet Adeline, and Music in the Air. Independent of the other, Rodgers and Hammerstein both wanted to turn Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical, but neither of their then partners shared that interest. Eventually, they decided to work together. The result was Oklahoma!, which opened in 1943 and quickly became a landmark production in the history of Broadway. Incidentally, Hart died of complications of alcoholism that same year, while Kern died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945. What started as a temporary partnership soon became a permanent collaboration.

After Oklahoma!, Rodgers & Hammerstein created Carousel, which opened in 1945 and was another tremendous success. Their score for State Fair was just their third combined effort. Many of the greatest successes of the Broadway musical theater of the forties and fifties were Rodgers and & Hammerstein shows. Among them were South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music. They also created one show for television, Cinderella, which has been produced three times. All of the titles mentioned in this paragraph were committed to film. By clicking on the linked titles you will be directed to the DVD held by the Des Moines Public Library. Don’t miss them, don’t even be late!

Single-Season TV Series

The first TV series that I ever recall feeling disappointed about its being canceled after just a single season was the mid-sixties sitcom My Mother the Car. That’s right, My Mother the Car – now considered by many to be among the worst shows in the history of television. That NBC series, starring Jerry Van Dyke (brother of Dick, who was starring in the concurrently running, but classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show on CBS), was about a man whose mother was reincarnated as a 1928 Porter touring car (a fictional model designed for the show). Her voice, provided by longtime movie and TV star Ann Sothern, was heard through the car radio, though only her son could hear it. Hey, I know what you’re thinking, “how could you have been enamored with a show with a premise as gimmicky as that one?”  What can I say? I was just a little kid. What did I know about quality television? For a kid, gimmicky is funny. So give me a break!

Wax Lion

If you don’t recognize this wax lion, you’re not alone. This “character” was a key element in a charming fantasy show that only lasted a single season. Read to the end to learn more about this wonderful show.

As frustrating as it is to see a new favorite go off the air well before it should (I’m still riled by NBC’s cancellation of Go On), there’s at least one advantage to a short-run series. If for whatever reason you don’t have time to commit to watching multiple seasons of a popular series, one-season shows are a great stop-gap measure to fit tight schedules. That’s especially so if the series’ producers had the wherewithal to produce a final episode that helped tie up loose storylines. The following is a list of ten of the best single-season shows (listed alphabetically) that are available on DVD at the Des Moines Public Library. Some have brilliant concepts with grand execution, others are incisive and authentic, while a few are clever yet goofy fun, but I believe that they’re all quality shows that deserve to be seen.

BriscoThe Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (27, 45-min. eps.) – In between chapters of the Evil Dead trilogy, but long before becoming Sam Axe on Burn Notice, Bruce “The Chin” Campbell starred as the titular character, an Old West bounty hunter battling baddies who possess anachronistically futuristic weapons in this crazy mix of multiple genres. (Fox)

The Ben Stiller Show (13, 23-min. eps.) – Admittedly, like so many other sketch comedies, this is pretty hit or miss, but it was good enough to nab the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program after it was canceled. The regular cast members (Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk) all went on to successful careers afterwards. (Fox)

FireflyFirefly (13, 42-min. eps. and the 86-min. pilot) – Created by writer-director-producer Joss Whedon, Fox seemed to do everything it could to ensure the failure of this often lighthearted science fiction/adventure series. Despite showing several episodes out of their intended order, preempting a few and never airing three others, a fervent cult grew up around the show, culminating in the 2005 theatrical film Serenity, which wrapped up most of the series’ dangling plot threads.

FlashForward (22, 42-min. eps.) – FlashForward was a high concept series about a mysterious worldwide event in which everyone loses consciousness for 137 seconds during which each person has a vision about her/his near FlashForwardfuture. An FBI team is then assigned to answer the many questions this generates. Although the final episode answers some questions, it asks more that could only be answered had it been picked up for a second season. (ABC)

Freaks and Geeks (18, 44-min. eps.) – One of the greatest high school-set series of all time, nevertheless it took cable airings and DVD sales for Freaks and Geeks to really find its audience. Current comedy kingpins Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) co-produced the show and served in several other creative capacities. Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps are among those who went on to stardom on TV and/or in movies. (NBC)Freaks & Geeks

Grosse Pointe (17, 22-min. eps.) – Darren Starr used his experience producing Beverly Hills, 90210 to create this satire about the off-camera antics of five actors starring in a fictional high school-set nighttime soap opera  also called “Grosse Pointe.” In spite of solid critical notices (unlike those of Starr’s other shows, including Melrose Place), this show never caught on with a sizeable audience. (WB)

My So-Called Life (19, 47-min. eps.) – Claire Danes’ heartfelt performance as teenager Angela Chase in this realistic teen drama made her an instant star, and a surprise Golden Globe winner for Best Performance by an Actress in a My So-Called LifeTV-Series – Drama. Low ratings, however, combined with 15-year-old Danes’ own reluctance to come back for a second season, convinced ABC to kill it.

Police Squad! (6, 25-min. eps.) – To this day, I don’t know how this wacky send-up of cop dramas ever found its way onto ABC’s schedule, it was just too deliciously clever and stupid simultaneously. Created by the team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, who’d already had big screen success with Airplane!, this small screen entry lasted only six episodes. Nevertheless, it was later revived in three Naked Gun theatrical features, also starring Leslie Nielsen as Det. Lt. Frank Drebin.Undeclared

Undeclared (17, 22-min. eps.) – A year after NBC canceled Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow created this college comedy for Fox. Like his previous show, this featured a teen ensemble cast, but this time centering on a group of freshmen at the fictional University of Northeastern California. Series regulars Jay Baruchel (This Is the End), Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), and Seth Rogan (The Green Hornet) all “graduated” to bigger things.

Wonderfalls (13, 42-min. eps.) – Fantasy seldom works on television, movies yes, television no. This quirky, sharp-edged series about a Brown University graduate who’s floundering after college was an exception – not that it mattered. Fox only aired four of the thirteen produced episodes and they broadcast those wildly out of order. Fortunately, the DVD release restored the intended sequence. What’s more, the producers completed the story arc so that this short-lived series received closure.