Bowie's in Space

One last music post before I return to Found History‘s bread and butter.

If you haven’t been watching HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, you’re really missing something. Take my word, it’s the best comedy to hit TV since FOX inexplicably pulled Arrested Development from the air more than a year ago. It’s way too weird to explain fully here, but it’s basically a story about a pair of New Zealanders—Bret and Jemaine—trying to make it as novelty musicians in New York. Between meetings with their agent Murray and chance encounters with their lusty “fan” (singular) Mel, the Conchords regale us with their truly awesome music videos.

This week the Conchords did some history—some freaky Bowie history. Three times during the episode, Bret is visited in his sleep by a vision of Bowie past: the 1972 Ziggy Stardust Bowie, the 1980 Scary Monsters Bowie, and finally the 1996 Labyrinth Bowie. This final visit launches the Conchords into “Bowie’s in Space” a brilliant parody of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Then, to top it all off, the video continues into the credits where the music changes from the 1970s space kitsch of “Major Tom” to the 1980s wood block and rolled up sport jacket sleeves of “Let’s Dance.” Too funny, man.

U2's Kite

I’ll stick with music for one more post.

“Kite” is one of my favorite of U2‘s more recent songs. In keeping with the title, Edge’s guitar is alternatingly lilting and soaring, and Bono’s vocals are more than usually impassioned. The chord progression is classic rock simple, but the rhythms are changeable and complex. In many ways “Kite” marks the high point or cresendo of the band’s return its rocking roots in its November 2000 release All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

However, the best moment for me—and not coincidentally the one that will be most interesting to Found History readers—is the song’s nearly spoken-word epilogue:

Did I waste it?
Not so much I couldn’t taste it
Life should be fragrant
Rooftop to the basement

The last of the rocks stars
When hip hop drove the big cars
In the time when new media
Was the big idea

That was the big idea

Buried just beneath the surface of this apparent afterthought is what amounts to an historical apology to fans.

Emerging from the same late-70s post-punk, post-prog crucible as The Police and The Clash, U2 outlasted its equally talented competition to become what many consider the band of the 80s. The high point of this success was undoubtedly 1987’s landmark release The Joshua Tree, which by almost any measure must rank among rock’s greatest achievements.

If the Joshua Tree launched U2 into the pantheon of rock and roll, it also presented the band with the familiar problem of finding a suitable second act. The Joshua Tree was haunting and profound, but it was also chokingly serious and unsustainably earnest. U2’s 1988 follow up album-cum-tour film Rattle and Hum presents a band that has taken itself too seriously. 1991’s sometimes brilliant, faintly inane, and thoroughly self-regarding release Achtung Baby gave us a band on the verge of collapse. Often mistaken to be a love song, the album’s biggest single “One” is in fact a desperate plea to keep the band together.

Yet what U2 recognized in Achtung Baby that nearly all top bands miss is that they had to stop taking themselves so seriously. It wasn’t at all obvious how to do this: the history of rock doesn’t provide many good examples of humility. Indeed a late-90s observer likely would have determined that U2 had failed. 1993’s Zooropa, 1997’s Pop, and the band members’ string of unremarkable solo projects took the inanity of Achtung Baby to new heights. In the increasingly fragmented media and music environment of the mid-1990s that now included Rap, House, Grunge, Electronica, Alternative and many more, U2s brand of Led Zeppelin-style superstardom just seemed all the more ridiculous.

In fact, consciously or not, U2 had hit upon an ingenious reinvention strategy. The only way to combat the overwhelming earnestness of The Joshua Tree and the art house self-seriousness of Achtung Baby was to tear the band down and rebuild from the ground up. Pop in particular was a scathing, humiliating, almost self-flagellating parody of wealth, fame, technology, and rock itself. Yet at the time it just seemed like a bust. Most late-90s observers would have determined that U2 was finished.

2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was therefore and by all accounts a renaissance. With songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” the band returned to the tested formula of big vocals, socially aware lyrics, building guitars, and rock-solid bass and percussion that served it so well in the mid-1980s. (You find hints of U2’s earlier work throughout the album, for example the tinkling piano at the end of “Walk On” is clearly a throwback to 1983’s “New Year’s Day.”) This time, however, tempered by experience, they did it without so much (though admittedly still some – hey, they’re rock stars) ego and condescention. For long time fans—like me, if you hadn’t already guessed—it was a welcome return to the band’s roots.

This is the history told in the last two stanzas of “Kite.” In the first of these, Bono acknowledges the band’s mid-90s collapse and explains that its absurdist turn was at least partly intentional: “Did I waste it? / Not so much I couldn’t taste it / Life should be fragrant / Rooftop to the basement.” In the second, he provides fans with a rationale: “The last of the rocks stars / When hip hop drove the big cars / In the time when new media was the big idea / That was the big idea.”

Together I think these two stanzas prove I’m not totally off my rocker in pointing to the historical work being done by U2 in this song. In them Bono recognizes the essential anachronism of a 1970s stadium rock band (the “last of the rock stars”) in a world of satellite television, iTunes, and general media fragmentation (in the mid- to late-90s marginal hip hop artists truly “drove the big cars” viz. the Notorious B.I.G. and Coolio). He also recognizes that the only way to deal with the historical predicament in which U2 finds itself is alternatingly to embrace and reject that new media culture—that was the “big idea.”

In terms of found history, “Kite” shows not only that U2 has thought about and understands its place in the larger sweep of rock and roll history, but also that its long time fan base expects fidelity to that history or at least some explanation when it deviates from it. “Kite” also suggests that at this late stage, die hard fans may well expect U2 to make history and autobiography as much as they expect them to make good music.

Change Over Time

This is kind of creepy—it reminds me of Michael Jackson’s 1991 Black or White video, which is creepy on many levels—but it’s also kind of cool. Eggman913‘s 500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art provides a compelling and potentially telling history of the evolution of Western female portraiture in the space of three minutes.

It would be great if we had artists, titles, and dates to go along with the music and images, but even without them the video provides an incredibly rich visualization of how both painting and perceptions of women have changed since the Renaissance. Professional digital historians could take a lesson from this slick amateur effort.

Medieval Help Desk

Ever wonder how Europe managed the transition from scroll to codex? This short video may provide some insight. I suspect the periodization is all wrong—historians of the book can let us know—but anyone who has ever worked in tech support will see the comedic conceit is right on.

BTW: Unless you speak Norwegian, you probably want to turn down the sound and stick to the subtitles.

Really Smooth Music

My good friend Rob was particularly disgusted by my Venerable Bede joke (sorry, Rob), so I’m going to try to make it up to him by posting one of his found history picks.

Video podcast Yacht Rock parodies the silky sounds of late-70s and early-80s pop acts like Steely Dan, Chicago, Hall and Oates, Toto, and Christopher Cross, in each episode reenacting the “secret history” of a different yacht rock classic. As host Hollywood Steve tells us from his “music nook”:

From 1976-1984 the radio airwaves were dominated by really smooth music, also known as Yacht Rock. These yacht rockers docked a remarkable fleet of number one hits, and every song has a story behind it. Let me tell you one.

Episode 1, for example, tells the story of how new Doobie Brothers member, Michael McDonald (with help from former Loggins and Messina front man Kenny Loggins) came to write “What a fool Believes,” transforming the Doobies’ earlier, guitar-rock sound into the yacht rock of their later years. Episode 2 documents the 1978 “back alley” song writing duel between Loggins and McDonald and yacht rock bad boys Hall and Oates. Episode 3 explains Loggins’ transition from the smooth sounds of yacht rock to the rockin’ beats of his Caddyshack and Top Gun years. Episode 6 is the most overtly “historical” of the bunch, featuring piercing insights from Ferris State University history professor, Dr. “Big Rapids” Gary Huey. Huey provides the Plymouth Plantation pre-history of yacht rock, complete with a doubly-anachronistic cameo by none other than Jethro Tull (appearing here as a kind of unholy hybrid of the 18th century agriculturalist and the 1970s hard rock flutist, Ian Anderson). From there it just gets weirder.

Have a good weekend, and in the immortal words of yacht rock producer, Koko Goldstein, “don’t loose the smooth.” Now I’m off to find me an ice cold Tab.

John Bolton, John Stewart, Doris Kearns Goodwin

I was cleaning out my TiVo last night, and I caught this odd trio debating the makeup of Lincoln’s cabinet. The phone is an especially nice touch.

(Don’t blame me for the crappy video embed. My initial instinct was to pull this from YouTube. After several fruitless searches there, I finally remembered Viacom’s DMCA lawsuit and stumbled over to Comedy Central’s nearly unusable video pages. How many thousands of like-minded YouTube users have just given up and forgotten all about their Daily Show clip? Nice move, Viacom.)