Vinyl Excursions: Scarce Sounds in Canberra

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Australia National University, June 2019

Happy Saturday! I’m sorry to never have completed my entries on my trip down under, especially considering how fantastic Hobart and IAG were in general. I still hope to post about some highlights. In the meantime, I’m finally enjoying an hour or so of downtime out of my box-filled house, so I thought I would finish this post on one of the highlights of my first week in Australia – a meeting with author and archivist Ross Laird, known to the internet community as Scarce Sounds.

I’d been in touch with Ross off and on since I first began the Ben Irving project in earnest roughly five years ago. He came up in internet searches as an expert on the Okeh records catalog, so I emailed him to ask if he had any record of the Ben Irving Orchestra (or any proof that Ben recorded and released any music). He got back to me quickly and thoroughly, running through expansive evidence that there was no record of anyone by that name in Okeh’s catalog.

I got back in touch with him earlier this summer in the weeks leading up to my trip down under. It turned out that as a longtime employee of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, he was based in Canberra and would be in town when I was there for the IASPM meeting. We met up in his old haunt on the Australia National Uni campus to chat a bit more about where our respective projects had brought us.

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Ross Laird and a bottle of Mount Majura 2009. Canberra, 6/28/19.

In an unanticipated bit of hospitality, he and his wife invited me to their home in the suburbs, where I’d be able to see one of the most unique and expansive record collections in the world. At least, I saw part of it. He mentioned that he had a shed full of shellac records (not so nimble and as prone to weathering as vinyl) and an additional office/storage room other than the one I saw. Here are some photos.

Thousands of records from his archive (including very rare ones) are for sale on his Discogs page, Scarce Sounds. As he explained to me, Ross doesn’t view himself as a collector as much an a curator. Pursuant to the name, most of his records are rare and don’t really exist within the public archive. He aims to change that for many great overlooked artists from the Global South, then sending the recordings afield to other music lovers. It’s a worthwhile pursuit and a point I hope I can reach one day.

 

He sampled a bunch of 78s and 45s for me, most of which were still shrouded in mystery (most, if any information that exists about them on the internet, he put there), but my single favorite song I heard all night was a bubblegum pop song by Rita Chao and Sakura, entitled “Bala Bala.” The song has a driving baritone sax lead, fantastic female duo vocals, about 4 different words in the whole song, and I loved it to death. Some good Samaritan put a piece of “Bala Bala” on a supercut they uploaded to YouTube about ten years ago.

“13” Turns Twenty

13_28blur_album_-_cover_art29Happy Friday, everyone. I recently noticed that Blur’s everything-falls-apart masterpiece “13” came out twenty years ago today (March 30 in the States, to split hairs). I’d be remiss if I let that landmark slip by without mention here, because I completely missed the anniversary of their self-titled album (my entry point as a fan) two years ago.

Blur’s mid-90’s rivalry with Oasis (manufactured as it was to sell copies of NME), formulates one of my favorite lectures I include in my European Geography (GEOG 371) course. Popular culture reinforces geographic assumptions, especially the sense of place that permeates any discussion of “the North” and “the South” in England. Not since The Beatles vs. The Kinks had there been such a raw encapsulation of that dichotomy. For the record, I do prefer The Kinks, too (and not because of any predilection for Southern England; I just enjoy their music more than most bands in the first place).

Anyway, in 1997, Blur were shedding their Britpop skin and embracing Graham Coxon’s love of American indie rock, perhaps best manifested as the wonderful “You’re So Great.” As I said, Blur was my entry point as a fan, so I didn’t fall in love with the band’s foppish (in a self-aware way) era. Like many of my friends who were listening in this era, I remember being less enthused at 13 when it landed in 1999. “Coffee & TV” felt like the only marginally accessible song on the album, which didn’t matter much to critics, but to a teenage American, it felt like a bit of an affront. I recall putting the CD on at some friends’ house in Syracuse while we sat around as a party dwindled; by the time “1992” got to it’s third-level of noise, walked over to the boombox and turned to me and said “I’m, uh, gonna change it.” If you want to get a decent impression, feast your brain on this:

Knowing what we know now, though, makes the accomplishments of 13 all that more remarkable. Namely, the band had long since shed any sonic accouterments of what had ostensibly made them huge, defied every music writer in the UK, and more or less entered into the worst collective period of their lives. Again, I was too young and under-educated in life to recognize half of this album as a heady mix of cries for help and the other half as gleeful conflagration of their rental castle-mansions. I’ll never forget reading a story on Blur in SPIN in the wake of the trans-Atlantic success of “Song 2” that really harped on how much the members hated one another. It seemed pretty sensationalized (because it was), but I can only imagine how much resolve it took the four of them to remain a band. In 1997, Graham Coxon sang that “DT’s [delirium tremens] and coffee helps to start the day,” and in 1999 he sang “sociability is hard enough for me” to chronicle a years-long battle to overcome alcoholism. “Coffee & TV” sounded convincing enough, and one of the all-time great videos to dramatize his ‘coming home’ certainly helped this case. Stateside, it remains in contention against “Girls and Boys” for the vaunted title of ‘Blur’s most successful single that doesn’t go “WOO-HOO.”‘

Anyway, since it’s 2019, there are a multitude of ways to hear 13 in its entirety if you’re interested in doing that today. Twenty years ago, Blur played most of the album live at the Hippodrome Theater in London, and a fan named Claire Welles taped the gig off the radio. A little over a year ago, she digitized it on YouTube. Considering the teeming oceans of Blur material on the site, it’s only accrued 556 views so far. I’ll embed it here if you’d like to add to that count.

One dynamic that I can’t get out of my head while listening to this was how so many of those cheering fans, like so much of Britain on BBC1, were hearing songs like “Trailerpark” and “Battle” for the first time ever. I believe that Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa were all active by this point, which had fundamentally changed the lifespan of anticipated music’s release. Gone were the days of that hot new single arriving at the BBC on a CD encased in some briefcase with a combination lock.

Damon Albarn, right on brand, didn’t sound too enthused to be performing these songs, but again, the fact that the band still existed in 1999 was remarkable. Considering the worldwide success Albarn had waiting in the rafters with James Hewlett at this point, it’s even more understandable that it feels like he’s punching the clock here. Still, you can’t help but imagine he begrudgingly knew how insane and special this new album was. And no matter what your feelings are on Albarn, he headlined Glastonbury two years back-to-back (2009-2010) with two different bands.

Alright, I’ve said enough. Happy 20th anniversary to 13, hope you all have a great weekend, and if you’re anywhere near Oak Ridge tomorrow night (Saturday 3.16) come see me and Nina Fefferman (UTK Evolutionary Biology) talking science with comedians Shane Mauss and Dave Waite at the Grove Theater. It’s close to selling out, but there may be tickets for sale at the door!  More info in my previous entry or at Shane Mauss’ site here.

‘The Last Scene’ Trailer & Campaign

I’m appearing in a new documentary called The Last Scene, which covers pop-punk’s millennial epoch and surprising transition. The director, Kyle Kilday, approached me with questions about scene dynamics and the social role of rock music, and I show up (briefly) in his sizzle reel, embedded here:

It’s always weird seeing myself on camera – particularly as a talking-head “expert” in a documentary. As someone whose love of bands like The Get Up Kids and Hot Rod Circuit helped him endure the end of high school, I can’t wait to see where the project goes. I’ve already been invited to (production pending) re-film an extended interview in LA this Fall.

Kilday has set up this IndieGoGo page for those interested in contributing!

Picking an Alternate National Anthem for the United States

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Each week in my American Popular Culture class this semester, I posed an open-ended question to my students on our discussion board. These topics traversed subjects as eclectic as everyone’s favorite gags from film and TV, favorite local food spots, and even conducting digital ethnographies using Youtube comments from classic music videos. One question I had in mind was inspired by the right’s manufactured controversy over NFL players (and other athletes) kneeling through the National Anthem in acts of protest and solidarity.

Though “The Star Spangled Banner” elicits a range of responses that reside on a spectrum between detached ambivalence and fiery Nationalist passion, I very quickly found myself wondering whether perhaps the United States had outgrown her National Anthem. After all, it was inspired by a battle fought more than two centuries ago, written by an amateur poet with no intent to become anything greater than prose. From a musical standpoint, it’s challenging to sing (even for talented vocalists), which complicates the communal dynamic of crowds being tacitly expected to sing along.

I did not have a spare week in which to pose this question on our discussion board, but I had the opportunity to do so on the final exam. My question and preface are pasted below, followed by a list of our class’ responses. The impressive range of choices, both stylistically and historically, was pretty inspiring, coming from an engaged and creative group of students. It has me thinking about a possible future paper about an assignment like this, discussing how human geographers can use music and pop culture to approach discussions on national identity.

For 87 years now, “The Star Spangled Banner” has been the National Anthem of the United States of America. Prior to 1931, it had been played at official events like the World Series (1918).
Over the past decade, and particularly since 2001, the anthem has come to represent and elicit a wide array of passions in equal elements Nationalist and Globalist. Over the past few years, this has come to a head in light of the Take a Knee movement in professional sports and in other areas of popular culture. What began as a protest to bring visibility to police and State violence quickly escalated to a question of Patriotism. It also led to a greater introspection on the history, context, and meaning of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Let us say, hypothetically, that the US government decided to pick a backup/unofficial National Anthem. I ask you all as members (or consumers of) American Popular Culture, to PICK THAT SONG. It has to represent (to you) what America is all about, what makes America great, or what America needs to greater understand about herself. This response only needs to be about 50-100 words and should include a link to the song if possible. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

  • Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth”
  • Toby Keith – “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” (2X)
  • Various – “America the Beautiful” (2x)
  • Beyoncé – “Formation”
  • U2 – “In God’s Country”
  • Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – “Summertime”
  • Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
  • Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin'”
  • James & John Johnson – “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Freebird”
  • Colt Ford – “Workin’ On”
  • Crush 40 – “Live and Learn”
  • Lana Del Rey – “National Anthem”
  • Miley Cyrus – “Party in the USA” (2x)
  • Dick Dale – “Misirlou”
  • Lee Greenwood – “God Bless the USA”
  • Journey – “Lights”
  • Woody Guthrie – “This Land is Your Land” (2X)
  • Johnny Cash – “Ragged Old Flag”
  • Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
  • Ray Charles – “America the Beautiful”
  • Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight”
  • The Temptations – “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
  • Kendrick Lamar feat. U2 – “XXX”
  • The Eagles – “Hotel California”
  • “Welcome to McDonald’s” (“Welcome to the Jungle” Parody)
  • Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.”
  • The Arcade Fire – “Wake Up”
  • Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues”
  • Bruce Springsteen – “The Promised Land”
  • Don MacLean – “American Pie”
  • Billy Joel – “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
  • John Williams – “Imperial March” from Star Wars

My biggest surprise was that it took as long as it did for someone to mention a Bruce Springsteen song (and that it wasn’t “Born to Run,” which I thought would be a shoe-in here). I would blame it on a generation gap, but there were two students, both born in the mid-90’s, who picked songs by Journey. Feel free to mullet mull it over.

Three of the artists – U2, The Arcade Fire, and Queen – are not American per se, but I accepted all three enthusiastically. On U2’s first appearance on American television in 1981, Bono proudly declared that unlike certain other Irish bands, “we want to be here!” By the time that their Live Aid performance (speaking of mullets…) propelled them into rock-god territory a few years later, a healthy majority of their songs expounded love for the United States and her tumultuous history (see: basically the entire track list of The Unforgettable Fire). By the time they created The Joshua Tree (1987), U2’s fame was powerful enough to influence many commonly held ideas of “Americanness” in pop music. On Rattle & Hum (1988), they had about as many songs about Ireland (“Van Diemen’s Land”) as they did about Nicaragua (“Bullet the Blue Sky”). So many of my favorite songs from that era of the band were love letters to America, which meant a lot, considering how few love songs U2 wrote in their first two decades.

As for the Arcade Fire, Win and Will Butler came up in Texas; I don’t know if there’s ever been a more American band from Montreal. As for Queen… try to go to an American sporting event without hearing “We Will Rock You.” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for anyone born after 1980, will always be inextricably linked to the most middle-American of SNL adaptations, Wayne’s World.

I meant it when I said “get creative.” On the last day of class, I shared my pick for alternative national anthem, which I chose for my own reasons, and not because Rudy Martinez has been known to say as much from time to time:

Five Latino dudes from Michigan, one of whom had the audacity to change his name to a piece of punctuation, building a bizarre mythology, distilling proto-punk through an in-your-face Farfisa organ, and continuing to perform for more than 50 years: what could be more American than that?

Courses I’ll Be Teaching: Spring 2018

It’s November, meaning that for the undergrads, it’s registration time! Nothing quite like making students plot out their next round of classes right at the moment when they are at wits’ end with their current round. Fortunately, I’ve been enjoying my four classes this semester, and from my mid-semester evaluations and individual conversations, so have most of my students. This is fortunate, because I happen to be teaching four more courses in the Spring.

Whether or not I’ve had the pleasure of having you in one of my classes this semester, last Fall, or in my 101 sections in 2014-2015, take a look at these options for the Spring.

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(classicwines.com)

GEOG 101 – World Regional Geography

This will be my fifth time teaching this introductory course (fourth time at the University of Tennessee). It takes a humanities-oriented look at the globe and how we are all increasingly connected, taking time out to focus on all of the major World Regions. The list of case studies I use here is too long to write out here and consistently increasing, but today I discussed the geographic birth of the American Indian Movement and my colleague Emma did a guest-lecture about the Westward expansion of the US within our National Park system.


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That’s not me, but my friend Eric Dawson from the East TN History Center speaking to my GEOG 320 class last fall.

GEOG 320 – Cultural Geography: Core Concepts

This course overviews the building blocks for approaching and understanding the very broad concept of Cultural Geography. It includes lessons about the perpetually-growing subject of ‘sense of place,’ gender, the battle of space v. place, as well as case studies in film geography, music, sports, and possibly anything else that ‘makes’ culture. This will be my third time teaching this course, and I always look forward to building on it.


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Somewhere outside Segovia, Spain

GEOG 371 – Exploring Europe

One of my favorite quotes by Eddie Izzard was a throwaway line in Dress to Kill (1998): “I grew up in Europe – where the history comes from!” This class unpacks that phrase by taking a critical look at the geographic processes that have made Europe into Earth’s ostensible mission control center for the past 500 years despite being a rattling agglomeration of devolving nation-states all grappling for some semblance of identity. We look at the heavy-hitters as well as the bench players of the continent, complete with a hand-picked soundtrack from all over the map.


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GEOG 423 – American Popular Culture

This course will examine the relationship between the cultural geography of the United States and the amazing breadth of art, icons, and legends that have sprung from her soil. I’m not prepared to deliver a full syllabus just yet, but some of the topics we may have on tap include literature, popular music, television, Music Television, sports, food/drink, death, Vaudeville, and architecture. This course will be cross-listed with AMST 423 (American Studies), so I’m looking forward to meeting some folks from that department who may not have taken a Geography class yet.

The Case for “Les Chaises Musicales”

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One beautiful day this July in Montreuil, France, I woke up (a bit later than I’d care to admit; I’m a night owl and I’d had a lot of interview notes to write up) and wandered down toward the Metro station. I bought a sandwich from the pastisserie and wandered over to the park next to the Public Library by the mairie (town hall). The park, always abuzz with activity, afforded few benches which I could sit upon without the mid-day sun blinding me. (Fair notice: if you invite me for lunch and insist that we eat outside, I’ll do it because I’m a grateful person, but I won’t exactly love it; the sun scorches, bugs bite, and the wind blows). I wandered past the library’s entrance looking for a good spot to sit and eat when I heard Johnny Cash’s voice emanating from a nearby grotto. It wasn’t Sun-era Johnny Cash, either; this was dying, recording-in-an-armchair, Rick-Rubin-calling-the-shots, Johnny Cash. The song was “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” from American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). Anyone familiar with Johnny Cash’s baritone, especially at this point in his life, could imagine how much hearing it changed my sunny disposition (however slightly; I was so excited for what I was about to discover).

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The library management had placed some lawn chairs out in the grotto and set up a pair of high-definition speaker monitors, blasting an eclectic playlist of 19 songs. An equally eclectic crowd sat and listened to the music. It was amazing. They weren’t talking or treating it as background noise. While some read and others napped, they were all just sitting casually and listening. Some of the selections were mainstream (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, others weren’t (Calexico’s “Woven Birds”). Some tracks were instrumental (Morton Feldman’s “Variations”), others were vocal (Billie Holiday’s “Summertime”), some hip-hop (RZA’s “My Lovin’ is Digi”), some rock n’ roll (Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon”), some folk (Woody Guthrie’s “You Souls of Boston”), all strangely transcendent to hear flowing out of a public library’s outdoor PA system.

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The moment I sat down, Nirvana’s unplugged rendition of the Meat Puppets’ “Plateau” started playing, as if they sensed an aging guy in an 80’s hardcore t-shirt had wandered over.

I don’t know how often they do this, but I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a lunch break. If I find the time anytime soon, I would like to bring this to the Knoxville Library and see if they’d like to give it a shot on Market Square or somewhere else central. It’s a great way to both present popular music in a sophisticated way and provide an ostensibly free public service for people who want to engage in public life. As much as I imagine Parisians to be more prone to this, that’s all the more reason to give it a test-run on this side of the pond.

“Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music” coming soon from Ashgate

I’m very excited to announce that my first publication, a chapter in the collection Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music has been formally announced by Ashgate Publishers. The book was edited by the brilliant trifecta of Gavin Andrews (McMaster), Paul Kingsbury (Simon Fraser), and Robin Kearns (Auckland). It is scheduled for release in March 2014, and features 288 pages of insights into the connections between holistic wellness and pop music by some big names in the field such as Pamela Moss and Paul Simpson. CLICK HERE for the full Ashgate information page with all the details! (No cover posted yet, sorry).  At any rate, pass this along to your respective departments and libraries as this spring semester begins.

My chapter is entitled “Fast and frightening: boundaries to well-being for women in the punk community.” For those keeping track, that is an L7 reference. Special thanks go out to Deborah Thien, my adviser at Long Beach State, for connecting me to this project. I had recently completed a research project for her class on gendered spaces of inclusion/exclusion at punk shows in the Los Angeles area that happened to fit into this collection after some light reworking.

On a related note, I defy any of you with even a passing interest in popular music/culture to not let your jaw drop at the new catalog of upcoming Ashgate releases. Prepare yourself. (Elvis Costello and Thatcherism… who isn’t on board on that title alone?)

Have a great week, everyone. I have something coming next week that involves media geographies, mullets, and a well-known A/V dork friend from DC that you may want to tune in for.