Friday, June 22, 2007

The Porpoise is Laughing

Another psychedelic soundtrack worth hearing.

When The Monkees produced Head--the film and the LP--they were no longer the darlings of popular culture, but outcasts--or, worse, kiddie fodder--while their older fans left them for more daring pop music. "Daydream Believer," after all, was a song your mother could like, and you'd hunt in vain for hip drug references such as you could find with The Rolling Stones and The Who. But their first (and last) feature film, Head, which may have been greenlit as an obligatory afterthought, a hey-thanks-for-the-ratings, was actually a postmodern, semi-sophisticated satire directed by a director who'd shortly earn critical respect (Bob Rafelson), written by an actor who would become a superstar (Jack Nicholson), and featuring some very good psych-songs from the usual assembly line of Monkees lyricists (Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Michael Nesmith--plus Harry Nilsson and even, gulp, Peter Tork). The one true overlooked classic was "Porpoise Song," sung at the opening of the film while the Monkees suicidally dive over a bridge! While the lyrics can be a bit cookie-cutter, like many of the bands eagerly imitating Sgt. Pepper at the time, the haunting chorus--"The porpoise is laughing, goodbye, goodbye"--sticks with everyone who's seen the film. And the film is pretty interesting, if not exactly a neglected masterpiece. Rafelson and Nicholson deliberately dissect the Monkees formula, pulling it apart so that the sketches no longer make sense--punchlines without set-ups, dopey mugging without provocation, non sequiturs within non sequiturs. We see the band exploited from every angle, pushed and pulled by television crews and advertising agencies (at one point they're trapped within a shampoo commercial), and each time they escape they're pulled back into a tinier box than the one before, leading to a pretty grim finale. Unfortunately, since the Monkees were seen by 1968 as juvenelia, the intended audiences never found the film--and kids were left confused (or, who knows, enlightened).

The foil-cover soundtrack was personally compiled by Jack Nicholson as an EP's worth of songs buffed up by thick collages of dialogue and sound pulled from the film. Kind of like an early mix-tape. Peter Tork's songs are weak but fun; the standouts are, apart from "Porpoise Song," Nesmith's rousing "Circle Sky" and the gorgeous "As We Go Along," straining Mickey's vocals to their utmost. The latter formed a strong single with "Porpoise Song." Today's MP3 is the single version of "Porpoise," which has an extended ending not heard in the album version.

The Monkees - Porpoise Song (single version)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Pink Floyd: Cymbaline

To continue the theme of psychedelic soundtracks: in 1969 Barbet Schroeder released More, a dream-like parable about two young lovers trapped in a dangerous heroin addiction. As with his later film, La Vallee, he tapped Pink Floyd for the dominant soundtrack. The Floyd was still in the process of metamorphosis; though it had been a few years since Syd Barrett was abruptly kicked out of the band (due to his rapidly advancing schizophrenia), Roger Waters was still testing his songwriting chops, and for a while--a while I quite like--the band was very democratic as it split songwriting duties amidst all the members. One of the highlights of the More soundtrack--and one of the few songs--is "Cymbaline," which features Dave Gilmour straining to lift his voice while the track's mixing perversely pushes him into the background. An amazing song; plus it has a Dr. Strange reference, which is always good.

The Pink Floyd - Cymbaline

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Trance Mutations on the Holy Mountain

In 1973 writer/director/actor/musician Alejandro Jodorowsky released a film called The Holy Mountain, which played only briefly in select film festivals and midnight screenings before it vanished for several decades. The owner of the film's North American rights (and John Lennon's short-tempered manager), Allen Klein, had promised various investors that Jodorowsky's next film would be an adaptation of The Story of O, but Jodorowsky had agreed to no such thing, expressed his disinterest, and backed away. Enraged, Klein sat upon Jodorowsky's previous two films, including the legendary El Topo, and refused to let it be screened or released on home video. The soundtrack--promised in the ending credits of the film--was not distributed to stores. All prints of the film were seized, and Jodorowsky, settling in France, turned his attention to other projects while maintaining a feud with Klein that only abated around 2004.

The film is science fiction, ostensibly, the story of a thief who, living in a corrupt dystopia, climbs a tower to steal gold from a reclusive guru. Within he is transformed by the guru into a spiritual pilgrim, who joins other pilgrims--representing different planets of the solar system--on a quest to climb a "holy mountain" and attain enlightenment. The film's tone manages to be both deadly serious and wryly satirical--I've seen it a few times, and I'm still not exactly sure how--while maintaining a steady flow of astonishing surrealist imagery and set design. Jodorowsky claims he had a low budget, but he somehow wrangles a cast of thousands into enacting his mystical parable, based on ideas and characters culled from the Tarot, and from his own endless imagination. Now that the feud between Jodorowsky and Klein is at an end, this film, along with El Topo (1970) and Fando y Lis (1968), can be purchased in a box set, The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Exclusive to the box are two soundtracks: El Topo (music by Jodorowsky) was previously available in the 70's from the Beatles' Apple Records; The Holy Mountain, however, appears here for the very first time. Considering the obvious craftsmanship applied to this bizarre mixture of classical music, jazz, psychedelic rock, prog rock, and Tibetan Buddhist ritual music. Since it's just a soundtrack, it can get away with such jarring juxtapositions.

The music on the CD is credited to Jodorowsky, Ronald Frangipane, and Don Cherry. Jodorowsky was an amateur, who says he composed many of the themes to El Topo almost at random: he recounts writing different notes on different letters, sending them out to his friends, and asking that they return with them; the order in which they returned the notes formed the structure of his music. The others, at least, were more professional in their approach, though they came from disparate backgrounds. Frangipane was a film composer who specialized in X-rated films. Better known was Don Cherry, a hugely gifted jazz trumpeter famous for his collaborations with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, as well as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. (Neneh Cherry and Eagle-Eye Cherry are his children.) Cherry's influence is felt strongly on the record, though one can surely credit Jodorowsky for the dominant use of ominous-sounding ritual Tibetan chants, which plays over the heavily symbolic opening titles and the thief's first encounter with the Master. Later in the album, "Fuck Machine" wouldn't seem out of place on a prog album, and "Pantheon Bar" even anticipates disco. Alas, the album lacks liner notes, so individual musicians are not credited.

To hear this fascinating album you have to buy the box set, which will deter those with a casual interest. In other words, if you don't want the box set, you might have to seek it out from a peer-to-peer service. Or you could take some samples below, courtesy the Electric Sailor. I expect my lawsuit from the office of Allen Klein within the week.

Trance Mutation
Isla (The Sapphic Sleep)
Rich Man in a Fishbowl
Tarot Will Teach You/Burn Your Money

For a more complete survey on the works of Jodorowsky, you can read my essay Jodorowsky Will Melt Your Brain at my film blog, Kill the Snark.