Pye in the Sky: Before the First Album

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David in 1965, spotty face and all

One thing is very clear: David Bowie was, from before he even left Bromley Tech, very determined to do whatever it took to become famous. He and his musical compatriots managed to convince Decca, Parlourphone, and most notably Pye Records that there was something about them — and in particular, him — that deserved a shot at the big time. Although the singles recorded during this early period weren’t too successful, they managed to position Bowie (then just Davy Jones) as a leader and potential star with definite talents in singing (if not quite yet songwriting).

Over the course of six 45rpm singles that came out before he ever landed an album contract, Bowie quickly goes from blatant mimic to testing the waters of his own style. With each release, there’s more of the emerging artist adding his own element to the stew of styles and techniques. Although he goes off in a very different direction for his debut album (for a variety of reasons we’ll explore when the time comes), these early recordings with various bands and his first forays into songwriting were clearly vital in shaping Bowie’s own artistic vision and identifying his strengths.

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Taken as a group, one can say this about Bowie’s earliest recordings: they’re quite derivative, they’re stolen from only the very finest, and they’re quite a bit more fun to listen to than his official first album. This is, really, how one learns songwriting (or painting, or fiction writing, or most other crafts): you start off by aping heavily from your influences, adding your own bit of a twist or stamp on it, and over time the borrowing (usually) recedes to a minimal degree — allowing one’s own personality/talent/originality to fill it in. In Bowie’s case, these first records with his various sidemen-bands (he was always chief songwriter and lead singer in these setups, right from the get-go) show you what he was listening to, as well as why various record companies and industry figures took such an interest in him: he could sing, he could write, and he was obviously growing into a real performer. The only question was when.

He never gave up being the bandleader, he was always most comfortable with his singing talent, and he never stopped borrowing. He was hardly the first artist to get into the spotlight this way, but there is a lot of mash-up and blatant lifting evident in both the early recordings and his later work throughout his entire career — even when the artist he was “borrowing” from was his own younger self, all the way through to “How Does the Grass Grow” from The Next Day — co-credited to The Shadows’ “Apache” writer Jerry Lordan for the direct lift in the chorus, and the song also smuggles in some bits of thematic resemblance to Bowie’s own “Boys Keep Swinging.”

Writer W H Davenport Adams was believed to be the first to say, referring to poets, that great ones “imitate and improve” but lesser poets “steal and spoil” in 1892. This was later reversed by T S Eliot in 1920, who said that “immature” poets borrow, while “great” poets steal. Variations on this thought have been circulating for more than a century, changing “poets” to “artists” — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs often mis-attributed a similar quote to Pablo Picasso. In any event, the pre-first album recordings from Bowie fit Eliot’s version of the idea to a T: he was a good artist, on his way to becoming a great one.

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Ain’t nothing but a hair-hopper!

Sometimes because of how blatantly the influences are on display, and sometimes because of Bowie’s strong performance or the twist he put into his nascent songwriting, most of his singles from before 1968 are highly listenable (if occasionally a bit awkward) and “borrow” from still-recognisable sources — making Bowie’s take on them enjoyable in their own rights. It is nothing short of exciting to hear Bowie start off as a “dedicated follower of fashion” with identifiable role models, and then listen as he starts to branch out, stretch and mash up the forms he has appropriated, and infuse more of his own perspective and personality into budding “original” compositions.

Many sound like they were, if we’re being charitable, written as songs to be sold to other artists, and tailored for them. Our own view is that Mr. Jones — as he was known then — and his record companies thought the fastest way to climb the ladder of show business was to cleverly (or ham-fistedly on occasion) “borrow” and rearrange existing hits into familiar-but-slightly-different new works (not unlike book publishing, let it be noted).

While not completely definitive, the compilation Early On from Rhino Records gathers together most of the early stuff from Davie/Davy (the former sometimes used to distinguish him from that Monkees singer) with the King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third, and The Buzz. By the time the latter band was formed, Davy Jones was long gone — and David Bowie was now the marquee name, despite the string of flop singles. The failure of these homages to gain chart traction likely led Bowie to be willing to drop the pretense of a backing band, and adopt a completely different, more “cabaret” style under new part-time manager Ken Pitt for his first “real” album later on. That said, the early singles are very noteworthy (and mostly very good) in and of themselves.

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Gathered together as they are in Early On, listeners can really follow the progression of Bowie both as a singer and, later, a songwriter. The single “Liza Jane,” his first record, came out in June 1964 on Decca (who had famously rejected the Beatles) with The King Bees, and was as one might expect very Beatles-influenced — right down to a Lennon/McCartney-esque vocal, with some early Rolling Stones thrown in for seasoning — Bowie later re-recorded this song for the unreleased Toy album in 2000/2001 (which we will get to in a future digression). The b-side, a cover called “Louie Louie Go Home,” is even more of a Beatles homage, including a “woooo” straight off “She Loves You,” which had become a hit single for the Liverpudlians just two months earlier.

Louie Louie Go Home

In this first b-side, we see Bowie throwing in multiple influences, changing the original Paul Revere and the Raiders’ title of “Louie Go Home” to a nod to the Kingsmans’ version of “Louie Louie,” and just flat-out ripping off the “a little bit louder now” call-and-response bit from the 1959 single “Shout” by the Isley Brothers (though more likely Bowie stole it from the Beatles’ performance of the song in May 1964 for a TV special called Around the Beatles). His discerning ear and good taste in what to lift was already apparent.

His next single, for Parlourphone, was a straight up blues-driven R&B number, a cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1961 single “I Pity the Fool.” It features a nicely smoky vocal from Bowie (going all Mr. T on us), but the song is most notable for its guitar work by a young Jimmy Page. The record is poorly produced, muddying up the nice horn work and, according to former Manish Boy members, eliminating some counter-melody and other complexity from the final mix.

I Pity the Fool / Take My Tip

The b-side here, “Take My Tip,” is Bowie’s first original composition to make it to a record, though ironically US singer Kenny Miller managed to get a cover of the song out on a b-side for one of his own singles a bit before the Manish Boys’ delayed version appeared. Again using Page (this time as a rhythm guitarist), it’s also a derivative R&B type number that is informed and inspired by Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh” — but introduces us to the story-song style Bowie would employ more frequently in his early songwriting, and keep as a colour in his musical palette for decades.

Third single, again for Parlourphone (now with The Lower Third) but released under just “Davy Jones,” was “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” and the a-side’s theme this time was “let’s be like The Who.” The 1965 version features some extremely Who-like guitar freak-outs redolent of the period. Bowie re-recorded this song 36 years later, also for the Toy album. The 2001 version shows off why Bowie liked this one — it’s a real diamond in the rough — and even tacks on an explicit homage to The Who once again on the end of the newer version. The flip side, “Baby Loves That Way,” is so blatantly a faux-Herman’s Hermits number that this reviewer actually guffawed in surprise upon hearing it for the first time. Interestingly, Bowie also re-recorded this song for Toy, slowing it down and making it less obviously Peter Noone-inspired, to the later version’s detriment.

You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving

Baby Loves That Way

Six months later, in January of 1966, we get the fourth single (now billed under the name “David Bowie and the Lower Third” and on Pye): “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” backed with “And I Say to Myself.” It’s a rather self-centred pair of songs, but for this reviewer the pairing amounts to the first full-throated, full-on Bowie single. Again a very Who-inspired number, “Can’t Help” was his first single to make it to the US (on Warner Bros), but like the others didn’t do well. Still, we get a terrific vocal performance with real enthusiasm that rivals the more-established bands he so often aped.

Can’t Help Thinking About Me (1966)

A fantastic 1999 performance of ”Can’t Help Thinking About Me”

The b-side is equally joyous in delivery, though the influence of the day switches to Sam Cooke, with obvious thefts from “What a Wonderful World” and a Righteous Brothers-style arrangement (as noted by Nicholas Pegg in his brilliant The Complete David Bowie, your humble narrator’s top go-to for trivia research). We also get another retread of Bowie’s favourite subject (at this point in his life): a woman who has rejected the hero of the piece. Both songs are wonderful, benefitting greatly from the musical direction and better production of Tony Hatch (best known as the producer-songwriter behind some of Petula Clark’s biggest hits, among many other accomplishments).

And I Say to Myself

The fifth single, again with Hatch but now with The Buzz replacing The Lower Third (but the first single to be credited to just “David Bowie”), was another R&B-style number with a rather Tom Jones-meets-Elvis sort of vocal called “Do Anything You Say,” featuring yet another stolen call-and-response courtesy of The Who. Listened to out of its original mid-60’s context, it’s quite a charismatic number with a bold delivery (albeit lacklustre backing vocals) that still holds its power to thrill.

Do Anything You Say

Even better, the b-side (“Good Morning Girl”) sounds for all the world like a time-traveling song by Swedish garage-rock, late-80s band The Creeps, featuring a bit of scat singing (!) from Bowie. The Creeps (who are definitely worth looking up) were devoted to sounds like this, with the song borrowing styles and phrases from the Spencer Davis Group and other contemporaries, with a bit of Dave Brubeck jazz thrown in for good measure. As Pegg notes, it should have been the a-side; it’s a damn catchy mash-up.

Good Morning Girl

Bowie’s last single for Pye was another milestone: “I Dig Everything” came off as almost original in origin (though very much a product of its time, and marked by some more Georgie Fame borrowing). While it still has that now-trademark Sam Cooke style to it, the song dispenses with most of the soul/R&B trappings, has an interesting story presumably drawn from Bowie’s own life as a bohemian at the time, and a surprisingly much-more-hippie influence than had been previously seen (and wouldn’t been seen again until his second official album). As a forerunner of what was to come after his faux-Newley period, it captures the flavor of 1966 very well indeed. The 2001 Toy sessions’ re-recording of “I Dig Everything” is disappointing by comparison — the “swing” of the song is removed for a slower tempo that slicks up the backing vocals, though the remake retains its hippie flavourings.

I Dig Everything

The b-side of the 1966 single was a fairly forgettable number (“I’m Not Losing Sleep”) that is surprisingly jaunty (and suspiciously “Downtown”-like, being produced again by Hatch) given its rather bitter subject matter, a calling-out of a betrayed friendship. That said, the vocal performance is similar (but much richer and more powerful) to “Do Anything You Say” in terms of presence, and really foreshadows (vocally) the more mature voice he would bring to Ziggy and later efforts. This is the first time Bowie really sounds like a grown man, rather than a college student, even if the lyric itself is embarrassingly juvenile.

I’m Not Losing Sleep

Speaking of bitter, it is no coincidence that this entry covering some of his first recorded works has appeared on the first anniversary of Bowie’s tragic death from complications due to liver cancer. We have no set schedule when future reviews might appear, we will commit to nothing, except that we’ll try to update things often enough that you’ll remember to check back for new entries. As Bowie himself made clear following a decade of relative silence: here we are, not quite dying … and the next day, and the next, and another day …

Next up: Deram a Little Deram With Me — the first album

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PreFace the Strange

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This project is in honour of David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, and starts today — what should have been his 70th birthday — with a little preamble of what Bowie Base One is all about. What we will do in this space, or try to do at least, is listen to and review his full studio and live album discography — and this will take however long it takes. There could will be a few notable detours; I think he would have liked that.

It is impossible to fully assess the impact this artist had on my life; I’ve tried to put my feelings into words for a year now, and have experienced a rare failure to be sufficiently eloquent for the job. Perhaps it is best to simply say that I happened to be the right age at the right time for exposure to his music and artistry, and that it opened up an entirely new world to me that took me in a very different direction than it would have otherwise on multiple levels — from showmanship to sexuality. It is no exaggeration to say his influence on me throughout my entire pre-teen, teen, and adult life has been profound. His sudden death two days after Blackstar was released, on the 10th of January 2016, was the closest I have ever come to what being hit by lightning must be like, and it too changed me on some deep levels. I am glad to have been alive during most of his residency on this planet, and sorry to have been here for the terrible year which was foretold with his passing.

We’ll continue on the first anniversary of his passing with a look at some of his earliest, pre-first-album material, followed by his official UK albums in order (with notes on deluxe editions and other ephemera). In addition to offering a wealth of great (and sometimes not-that-great) music and visual imagery, the albums and related work also paint a portrait of an artist coming into being, flowering, branching out, exploring his possibilities, combusting, re-inventing, selling out, roaming the wilderness, getting his mojo back, retiring, and eventually surprising us all with a brief second flowering before retiring from this planet.

Few indeed are the artists that offer such a complete timeline of their development, warts and all, across six decades. What we hope to accomplish with this project is to get to see this artistic growth and change in full through this series, as well as enjoy a lot of inventive, commercially-risky, artistically-daring (most of the time), mainstream (sometimes), fascinating (always), and memorable music.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

— Charles

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The Grinch who stole Star Wars

Or, why The Force Awakens is fun but will ultimately make you angry

I want you to see the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (also known as Episode VII). I want everyone to see it. If you’re looking for a light, fun, space-adventure movie to see on the big screen, you’re not going to find anything better. It is a visual treat on many levels, it brings some great new elements into the larger story, and of course it is wonderful to see some of the characters from the first Star Wars movie back again. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, so go see it, particularly in IMAX if you can.

Just don’t think about it too much afterwards.

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Obviously, from here on in we will be mentioning all kinds of spoilers (both plot developments and insights that will ruin some of the film for you). So please, I’m asking you nicely and seriously, stop reading this if you haven’t seen the film. This analysis is for people who have seen it and would like more insight into where the story does and doesn’t work: it will annoy the crap out of you if you read this first and watch the film afterwards. So don’t.

The TL;DR version of the critique is that although the film is executed very well and the new elements are welcome, the story is almost a play-for-play remake of A New Hope (the first of the Star Wars films, also known as Episode IV), only with some light twists (nothing wrong with that) that depend greatly on utterly ridiculous coincidences, character decisions, and filmmaker choices. So in short, it’s very much like Star Trek: Into Darkness in its interior badness. Because the film is very fast-paced, visually exciting, and has lots of explosions and fights, even serious fans will probably not notice this on first viewing, because the film is genuinely fun and cleverly made — and we also said this exact same thing about Into Darkness: it’s eye candy and then it grows increasingly silly until you’re finally angry at how completely empty the movie actually is.

Let us start, however, with those things that rightly deserve praise, because they do, and because nobody likes a wet blanket who can only talk about the problems with something and not acknowledge the good things. It was great to see some interesting new characters, major and minor, and while there are some questions lingering over Rey that hopefully will get answers in the future films (like “if she’s supposedly Luke’s kid, why has she got a British accent?”), but I have nothing but praise for her performance. Likewise, I thought the idea of showing that Stormtroopers are real people and can have changes of heart was an intriguing idea (yes, I know this was explored in other media, but I’m limiting myself to someone who mainly knows the Star Wars saga through the movies), and I thought John Boyega’s casting was fresh and good.

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I’m unsure how to judge the characters Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just yet, since their characters are clearly going to be developed further, but my initial impression is that Poe is (sorry) kind of a two-dimensional and all-good mix of Luke and Han, Finn is a mix of pre-A New Hope Han Solo and A New Hope-era Luke, Rey is a mix of Luke and Leia and Chewbacca (yes, you heard me), while Kylo is a remix of Prequels Anakin and Empire Strikes Back-era moral-quandry Luke. I’ve rarely had an issue with the casting in JJ Abrams’ movies, apart from Chris Pine, so his continuing the tradition of adding some unknowns was a great move (as it was when Lucas did it the first time around), and they’re all interesting choices and a good mix. Simon Pegg’s disguised cameo as Unkar Plutt was delightful — I often wish we got a bit more time and story on these interesting minor characters.

Since it is heavily stolen from A New Hope with elements of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and even a bit of the Prequels) thrown in, the story is naturally fun and exciting — a lot of older fans have said “it made me feel like I was 10 years old again,” or however old they were in 1977, which isn’t surprising since it is little more than a remix of that movie. That said, of course we’re thrilled to see the original characters, major and minor, and of course we’re pleased to see the effects updated to modern standards but otherwise left un-messed with. I thought the effects throughout were just great, including the mix of physical and CGI effects, the nice use of 3D in the 3D version (present, but not overused, and for once not dimming of the film overall), the expansiveness of the IMAX version, and the effectiveness of the music.

You can even get the film in a “D-box” version that rattles your seat when explosions happen, and jerk you around in the battle scenes, or the whole triple-play (3D/IMAX/D-box) if you shell out enough. I haven’t seen the “ordinary” non-IMAX 2D version yet, so I can’t judge on that, but I’d bet it loses none of the emotional or visual thrills for it. As I said at the top, if you’re just going to this movie for fun and thrills, it’s great. You won’t be disappointed — unless you wanted something substantive, because there isn’t that much here for people who care deeply about the entire saga, but there’s a lot of resonance for people who only remember Episode IV from their youth. A ton of it, and it’s not unwelcome at all.

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It’s only when you start to think about it — like the recent Star Trek, or Star Trek: Into Darkness — that it starts to fall apart, and you realize the Emperor — sorry, Supreme Leader — barely has a stitch on. I’ve seen some other criticisms of the film harsher than this one will be, such as “40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in The Force Awakens (which was followed up with another 20 additional problems, by the way!) — but about half of these are either subtle stuff he missed, or will probably (I say “probably” because you can’t trust JJ Abrams on this at all) be addressed later, or weren’t really either plot holes or unforgivable.

Still, most of the critics of the film I’ve read are more right than wrong — there’s nothing wrong with some homage to what came before, particularly at this point, but Abrams just went waaaay beyond that point into cribbing A New Hope wholesale, which ultimately makes The Force Awakens not fit in the saga at all. Say whatever you like about the three Prequel films, and believe me I did not enjoy them, but they did in fact add to the unfolding story. You can summarize the first six films by saying “there was a boy who was strong in the force and was eventually turned to the dark side, and as a man became the face of the Empire, but his son and daughter, led by a former mentor of the boy and a friendly but rogue stranger, teamed up to defeat the evil Empire and stop the mass slaughter of billions of freedom-loving people … and then, in Episode VII, they did that again.”

The Force Awakens doesn’t really advance the plot: it rehashes Episode IV in a sort of re-telling that appears, at the end of the day, only to exist to hand off the lead roles to some new people and bring casual people up to speed on where we are (which, this being a sequel to a 1983 movie, was important — but it’s all that’s here, with precious little actual new content).

Here’s what happened in the (let’s say) 25 years since Episode VI, since Episode VII is supposed to follow it: following a presumed period of peace, the New Republic (which is good, mostly, but seems ambiguous in the new film) have been running things, and the Republicans (sorry, the Empire — no, ’scuse me, the First Order) have sprung up and are fighting the New Republic (why? No reason given, sorry). For reasons also not mentioned or even hinted at, the New Republic has decided to fund a group of rebels (sorry, Resistance) within the systems controlled by the First Order to fight against them, and the First Order’s reaction is — in a stunning lack of imagination — to yet again (third time!) build a new Death Star (sorry, Death Planet — it’s bigger!) to destroy the Resistance and New Republic, and murder billions of apolitical innocents. Cuz righteousness, or … well, as I say, don’t think about it too much.

Han and Leia have split up because their son, Ben Solo, turned to the Dark Side of the Force, having previously been “the strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” at least since the last “strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” Anakin Skywalker — Ben’s grandfather, and of course the former Darth Vader. Luke, who was training Ben, was so devastated when he went bad and murdered the other students that he has spent several years (let’s say five?) years in hiding, doing absolutely nothing, it would seem. When we finally see him, he is literally doing nothing at all.

Ben has taken the name Kylo Ren and is now a slave of the Emperor, sorry Supreme Leader Snoke, and is a very high-up in the Empire (dammit, sorry, First Order) during this very short period (but let it slide, that’s not an unforgivable plot hole). Luke may have also abandoned his daughter (Rey, perhaps, we don’t know for sure but seems obvious) when she was around four years old to go take off somewhere for some reason, or maybe (likely) to protect her because she was so strong in the Force and he didn’t want the First Order to find her. Seems kinda harsh, but let’s reserve judgement on that, as that’s essentially what Obi-Wan did to Luke and Leia. C-3PO got a red arm and sounds kinda funny now, and R2-D2 has been in low-power mode since Luke left him behind following the massacre of his students, and will only awaken when the plot demands it — since he just happens to have the rest of the map they need to find Luke.

Han reacted to this situation by running away from it, rejoining with Chewbacca to go back to being a dodgy-but-lovable rogue smuggler (violating the laws of … the Republic? The First Order? Not clear) and Chewbacca seems completely unaffected by the passage of time (indeed, he’s gotten spritelier it would seem!). Leia has returned to being a General and leader of the Reb– sorry, Resistance, along with a bunch of old Rebel characters.

Princess+Leia

Interestingly, at least to those of us who found the backstory alluded to in the early Star Wars films, and fleshed out quite a bit in the Prequels about the only interesting thing in those three later films, there’s been a lot of political changes going on in the background that leads up to Episode VII, but sadly we get too little information about it; a clever fellow at Vox has put together a really good summary that actually adds to, rather than detracts from or spoils, the new film, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the story you should read it.

In the actual film, it just ends up being the Empire (sorry, First Order) is again building a Giant Killing Thing to wipe out Mostly Innocent People (because mustache-twirling EVIL, that’s why) and the political establishment (making them, ironically, the rebels!), but a plucky band of Rebels (sorry, Resistance Fighters) manages to destroy it through a combination of one person turning off the shields (sounds … familiar …) and a bombing run where the bombs have to hit a small target by flying low in a suicide run (sounds … really familiar …).

Oh, but wait. Did I mention that the early part of the film covers the political awakening of a young man who was just trying to do his job (and a girl stuck on a desert planet with big dreams and few opportunities to achieve them — like I said, Finn and Rey have a lot of Luke between them) when the evil of the First Order’s machinations drive them to grow up quick and make huge life changes they are surprisingly well-prepared for, all revolving around a droid that contains a hologram of plans that are vital to the Resistance in the struggle to fight the Sith-led villains? Oh, and there’s a Cantina scene with pilots that will take you off-world for a price (though happily, Han shoots nobody in this scene … this time, and a sage old person who has Anakin/Luke’s light saber?

Finn seems to be a crack shot when (and only when) he needs to be, Kylo Ren is strangely bad at using his powers judiciously (you’d think someone would have noticed this after all the damage he apparently does when angry), Rey appears to be an ace pilot for no reason at all, and has huge untapped Force powers that emerge almost the minute she learns that the Force actually exists that allow her to be as world-class Jedi as a fully-trained Luke within a day, Han Solo just happens to be orbiting the very planet where the Millennium Falcon just happens to be sitting undisguised in the largest town (and Han is aware of the person who has it!), and though it hasn’t flown “in years,” it works more-or-less perfectly and somehow wasn’t destroyed by the First Order … oh dear, really I could go on like this for another few thousand words (and I am not kidding at all) on the silly contrivances that take careful observers out of the movie and into eye-rolling territory.

There’s a lot I’ll forgive in the name of fun, but there does come a point where you say OH COME ON!, and I should make clear that this is not the only movie I feel this way about: I’m not one of those people who get angry that we can hear sounds (like explosions) in space (where you actually couldn’t), but I do find that the utterly impossible physics in Peter Jackson’s films that can’t be hand-waved away by saying its a fantasy world (they’re all fantasy worlds, that’s why we call them movies, kids) really hurt the later Lord of the Rings movies, and in particular The Hobbit (as much as the stretched-too-thin storyline in the latter trilogy), the ridiculous stunts in the JJ Star Trek movies (of course you can fall many miles from a starship to a planet without being harmed! Of course you can be shot out of a photon cannon without a scratch!) really get to a point of ridiculousness where it takes me out of the movie, and that’s really annoying — like a fly buzzing around when you are trying to read a really good book.

I was really a lot more fearful for the JJ-led Star Wars going into it, and relieved this wasn’t as awful as Into Darkness, which I’m going to credit, unfairly and entirely, to Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan’s no Harve Bennett, mind you, but he is generally a force for good story sense. It’s a pity he didn’t write this screenplay outright.

So, at this point let’s agree that The Force Awakens, um, borrows too heavily from A New Hope, and that this means things get awkward if we want to view Star Wars as an (in)complete saga. Unforgiveable? Maybe not, though we are left at the end of this movie with a setup that harkens back to the second chronological Star Wars movie so much that Episode VIII might end up being called The Emp — I mean, First Order Strikes Back: a young person who is strong in the force and has no immediate family we know about has left their old life behind, and arrived on a lush green world to be trained by a long-exiled Jedi Master, meanwhile the leader of the evil forces will plot revenge with his miraculously-saved apprentice, and the weakened Resistance will bravely fight the forces of the Empire (ack, sorry again, First Order), despite feeling the loss of a major character, who was murdered by the film’s chief antagonist.

I hope I’m wrong about Episode VIII, but come on, where else would a remake of A New Hope leave us? I actually love it when later films in a series “call back” to earlier films, but this is just way, too much. I would remind you also that I haven’t even gotten to some of the big, obvious (at least to me) issues or just plain dumb moments in the film: let’s take one just for starters — at the point where Snoke asks Hux to go get Kylo Ren, there is no possible way, even in Convenient Movie Time Stretching, for them to locate him, rescue him, and get him off-world in time. Rey’s rescue was a Lucky Coincidence too, but at least we saw them starting to go after her well before they reach her.

Yet, we know for sure that Kylo Ren will somehow be in the next movie, and now will need that mask he was conveniently wearing for no reason at all for reals. I’m hoping that if they go down this road, we get us some more Lando Calrissian. DO NOT go all Creed on me here, JJ — I demand 100 percent authentic Billy Dee Williams! If you’re going to remake Episode V, then I want Bespin and Lando and a Kylo Ren trap where they have to have an awkward family dinner, god dammit!

Speaking of Kylo Ren — why does he use the Force against nearly everyone except Finn? He knew something was up with Finn (FN-2187) early on — he noticed the trooper’s change of heart remotely, and knew it was him that helped Po escape. He has a lightsabre battle with Finn, but not only can he not beat him (even though Finn has never used a lightsaber in his life and is not very good with it), he doesn’t even really try to use any of the control tricks he used on Rey. Incidentally, Rey can speak Wookie, and droid, and at least one other language (when she yells at the scavenger who initially captures BB-8). The fact that she can speak droid might be explainable, but Wookie? Which doesn’t surprise anyone, like say Chewbacca or Han Solo, at all?

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Finn, who worked with droids all the time as a Death Planet janitor, can’t speak droid. Nor can a lot of people in this movie, except Rey. If this doesn’t prove she’s Luke’s daughter, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s a number of other subtle and not-so-subtle hints that this may be the case; when we first see her, she’s dressed exactly how George Lucas and original Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie envisaged Luke looking when they were (briefly) considering making the character female, just as an example. Oh, and also, are there really only three kinds of planets: desert worlds, lush green planets, and permanent-winter hollowed-out Starkillers? How boringly familiar.

When she touches Luke’s lightsaber (get your mind out of the gutter, you pigs!), she hears voices, including a bit of Yoda and more clearly Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by Ewan McGregor, in a nice touch). That lightsaber, or lightsabre if you’re British, was unguarded and unprotected in a chest that looks similar to the one seen in A New Hope, and if you remember the films was actually lost when Luke lost his hand near the end of Empire Strikes Back. It fell to the bottom of the cloud city, so who could have retrieved it and brought it back for safekeeping? GEE I WONDER.

Like I said, there are a number of questions the film raises that could be addressed later, so I’m not going to belabor every one of them, but I do have to wonder about what kind of warped comment on solar energy it is when the Starkiller base (which actually kills planets, but never mind) depends on sucking dry the energy of a sun (which the planet could not possibly hold, but again — let it go). Indeed, when you think about it, that’s really all the weapon had to do: without a sun, every planet in that solar system will rapidly die, no PEW PEW PEW missiles of death needed. If our sun went out, Earth would become uninhabited in about a day, at most.

Other than for plot-mystery reasons, why can’t Rey remember her family? She just remembers them leaving, and being placed in Unkar Plutt’s (!) care (shades of Oliver Twist here, really …). She claims she “couldn’t imagine” a world as lush and green as the first one she gets taken to after leaving Jakku, but Kylo Ren noted that she dreams of exactly such a world, so … and while we’re at it, Leia appears to either know or intuitively understand who she really is (she just met Rey, but lets her be the one to go find Luke), but says nothing to her … presumably for only plot-reveal reasons later. That’s fine to a point, but it will look silly later if I’m even half-right about this.

I’m actually being easier on this film than it deserves — there are a lot more oddities/belief-stretching coincidences/“oh come on!” moments that I’m willing to defer since this is the first film of a new trilogy. There will be a lot of people who might read this and say I’m taking it too seriously, that Star Wars is meant to be nothing more than light adventure, and that there’s a lot of boom and wheee and pewpewpew and zoom, whiz, lightsaber sound effect and droid squawk, and that’s all anybody other that dorky nerds want out of it. Fair enough.

The problem is that Lucas and Kasdan and the writers since then have (well, for the most part) infused a rich backstory into what is more obviously shown on screen, one that intrigues and rewards looking deeper into the films, and that it really wouldn’t have hurt The Force Awakens to get that stuff right — almost every issue I’ve raised with the film could have been avoided with a single line of dialogue in the right spot. Another issue is that in trying to pay homage to the classic three films (Episode IV, V, and VI), Abrams is just unbelievably unoriginal and ham-fisted about it.

You want proof? Okay, let’s forget, for a moment, that The Force Awakens is very nearly a remake of A New Hope. Let’s forget that the Millennium Falcon has been lost for a dozen or more years, but gets found roughly five minutes after it is fired up for the first time in “ages.” Let’s forget that BB-8 is just another R2-D2, and that it’s still odd that with all that advanced science around, nobody seems to be able to make small droids speak English. Indeed, let’s doubly forget that at least 25 in-movie years have passed since the events of Episode VI — presuming Rey is Luke’s daughter, and looks to be in her 20s, and Kylo Ren looks to be not much older than that — and yet the technology for ships, blasters, stormtroopers, et cetera does not seem to have changed even a little from 1977. Put that all out of your mind.

There’s a moment where Finn bumps the chess table on board the Falcon, and the chess game turns back on. In the original film, this was a cute moment — and a tip of the hat to stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, who had just a few years earlier done some masterful work in the Sinbad movies. In the new film, the game picks up exactly where it was left at least 25 in-movie years earlier. Does that seem credible to you, given that the Falcon was acknowledged in the film to have been owned by several different beings, and looks to have been on many different adventures since Episode VI? There — that’s the whole problem with this film in a nutshell. It’s fun, it’s flashy, it’s exciting, but it is really not too credible.

Once again, JJ Abrams delivers enough bangpow to enthrall audiences, but the moment you stop and think it through a bit — you realize you’ve been had. This is a pastiche of the old films, not a new chapter in the story at all. The man doesn’t seem to be able to come up with a sensible original story to save his life, and when he thinks to go the safer route of remaking an old story, he mishandles it.

I’m relieved that someone else will be directing Episode VIII, because I don’t think this franchise could handle another Abrams hack job. I actually do care about this story; that’s why it disappoints me that we didn’t move the needle much forward, particularly with such a great cast and some lovely new ideas. So much more could have been done, but someone — either Abrams, or someone higher up at Disney — felt like a rehash of the one that had the big impact the first time around would be a better approach. This is just plain old lazy storytelling.

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(Above: who is “The Pilot?” Did you see this in the film? Is he important? Nope, just more merch for you suckers to buy! Buy buy buy!)

Sure, they’ll make a gajillion dollars, and maybe that’s all that matters — there are more merchandise characters than actually appear in this movie, and some that do appear as toys would have you believe are far more important to the film than they turn out (at least so far) to be, and maybe that tells you something about where the creative energy in this project was really directed. I’m sorry to have to say it, but The Force Awakens is the movie equivalent of reality TV — visually appealing, popular, and fun — but kind of empty and unsatisfying, and not very good for your brain in the end.

Still, let it be said that the next related movie we’ll see — Rogue One — takes a different approach to working with what’s come before that could be quite interesting, and perhaps Episode VIII will finally take us someplace both new and complementary to the bold, brash, come-from-nowhere experimentation and energy that powered the first, and particularly the second, of the original movies. That’s my “new hope,” if you will.

To the extent that The Force Awakens is better-made than the Prequels, I am glad. To the extent that most people will find it thrilling fun that deeper subtext doesn’t matter to them, I am glad. To the extent that we still have a hope of getting a kick-ass chapter the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, I am glad and hopeful. Why, with so many great people working on this film, we couldn’t have gotten a torch-passing film that embraced the big dreams of the original classics instead of a remixed pastiche (that often wandered into parody … “you can always blow these things up!”), I am mystified. Playing it safe is the very last thing you should do with Star Wars.

COW 20-May-2013 – “Candy and Records”

This is a super-fantastic new episode (well, recorded on the 20th of May, 2013), and I was back in Orlando as part of a Fringe Show a friend of mine did — he later went on to win Best Comedy! If you’ve heard of “rap battles” or a battle of the bands or even the double-dutch dance-offs between those New York City girls, then this delightful DJ duel is going to be a special treat.

Sometimes when WPRK DJ Phantom Third Channel and I get together, we challenge each other — with music! As Frankie says, when two tribes go to war, the audience is the winner. This show has a tremendous diversity of sound pulled from across several decades of indie and college rock, but with a definite 80s atmosphere. Over the next two hours you’ll hear bands like Wire, XTC, They Might Be Giants, Bruce Wooley, Veronica Falls, Roxy Music, PIL, Galaxie 500, the Stone Roses and John Foxx — and more!

In between songs, we chatter and gush over all the great stuff we play for each other. One of our best sessions, but stay tuned … there’s more new episodes to come!

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know how you like it at crustyoldwave@me.com, and enjoy!

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/172646-cow-20-may-2013-candy-and-records.mp3]

COW #173 — 20-March-1995 — “Bryan Ferry Cross the Mersey”

Here’s a treat for those listeners who remember the local band scene in Orlando and all the great concerts we used to have — this episode’s twin focus is on the upcoming Bryan Ferry appearances that were happening that week, as well as both concerts and a new seven-inch, four-track EP put together by a handful of great local bands.

Our pal Jim was on the show, bringing along the latest Bryan Ferry album (which we go all fanboy over) and news of his upcoming appearance, and the two of us cooked up plenty of familiar and obscure New Wave gems, a few rarities and dance mixes as well. We took a little time to spotlight the local band EP and our special guest Aaron of Thee Exotic Aarontones in the middle of the show, and we also have a special all-new “bonus track” at the end from NYC-based Rude Boy George, who do a killer ska cover of the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” with a guest vocalist from the English Beat!

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know how you like it at crustyoldwave@me.com, and keep an ear out for part two of this shindig, coming soon!

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/159724-cow-173-20-march-1995-bryan-ferry-cross-the-mersey.mp3]

The Idol of Idle Youth: COW Episode #86 — 23-April-1993

Well here we are with a completely amazing episode from April of 1993 — its so good in fact that I’m having to split it up into two parts so you get the full glory!

Your old pal Chas had caught the Nash Vegas fever of Webb Wilder’s incredible root-rock-a-tronic southpaw music, and he pops up a couple of times in a show dominated by the great New Wave and Art Rock songs that weren’t the biggest hits but scored a lot of points.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know what you, the loving public, think at crustyoldwave@me.com, and keep an ear out for part two of this shindig, coming soon!

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/120742-cow-episode-86-the-idol-of-idle-youth-23-april-1993.mp3]

Bargain Bin Crusty Old Wave — 13-May-2013

Here’s another all-new episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, this time recorded on the 13th of May, 2013 live at WPRK. With our dear friend Phantom Third Channel behind the board, we once again took to the air to bring out the long-lost and beloved treasures of the New Wave era — but this time we did things a little differently.

Just to change things up, Phantom and I took turn playing the kind of music that normally plays on our show when I’m not taking over the place. Naturally I brought my early 80s-centric songs, and he brought his avant-garde selection of eclectic thrift-store finds, lost gems from bygone decades and enough oddball curveballs to win a baseball game. It made for an interesting mix that saw John Foxx followed by Robert Johnson, Captain Beefheart opening for Lesley Gore and Roky Erikson going head-to-head with Steeleye Span. This episode is a wild one, to be sure.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Enjoy.

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/117021-bargin-bin-crusty-old-wave-13-may-2013.mp3]

COW #038: Girls! Girls! Girls!

Annnnd here we are with another fun-filled episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave! This episode (#38) comes to us from the first of May, 1992 is serves not only as a two-hour testament to how great some of the music of the 80s was, but also to showcase a little of the wonderful cast of characters that I was privileged to work with on WPRK at Rollins College in the 90s.

This episode has some unusual selections. You’ll hear obscurities from Noel’s Cowards, Gina X Performance, Jerry Harrison, Landscape, and Seattle group Uncle Bonsai alongside album cuts from XTC, Adrian Belew, Falco, They Might Be Giants, the Rutles, the Pet Shop Boys, Adam Ant and many more. It’s a party in the basement, and you’re invited! Let’s kick it off with a little sauciness from Duran Duran, and listen out for a cut from Sesame Street. Yes, Sesame Street.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Enjoy.

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/103038-cow-episode-038-02-19-35.mp3]

COW #168 – Rock On With Your Bad Self

Here it is, the latest episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, fresh out of the oven! It’s a humdinger as well if I do say so myself, with lots of killer tunes. Heck, any episode with both They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic is bound to be good, plus you throw in lots of original punk, an interview and music from Orlando band Potential Frenzy, some particularly brilliant but less-heard music from Bruce Woolley, Bill Nelson, Modern English, Joe Jackson, The Assembly, the Buzzcocks, Paul Collins’ Beat, and Georgia bands The Woggles and Hillbilly Frankenstein.

Oh wait, there’s more! How about a rare remix from Yazoo, some ska from the Toasters and Madness, and more great local music from The Hatebombs? And did I mention a bit from Monty Python? It’s all here, friends, in two hours of delightful fun.

Get your dancing shoes on — by the time Malcolm McLaren’s “Double Dutch” shows up, you’ll already be out of your chairs and dancing down the stairs! Enjoy.

COW #168 – Rock It to the Moon

30 years on …

… and I am still discovering cool bands from the early 80s I knew nothing about!