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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

I had been thinking of doing a Journal Club post today, but that seems like an awfully heavy thing to leave up over the holiday weekend (and while I may check email and comments, I won't be posting anything new before Sunday night). Also, I didn't actually read any of the articles I printed out to write up...

So, instead, we'll stick with the pop music theme for a bit, and I'll comment on the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was loaned to me by one of the guys I play hoops with at lunchtime.

The movie is a documentary about the "Funk Brothers," who were the house band for Motown during their Detroit heyday. This is a bunch of guys who, as the film says several times, " played on more number ones hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined," and yet, nobody's ever heard of most of them. They were mostly guys recruited from jazz clubs in the Detroit area, brought in to crank out an incredible string of hits for other people.

There's an incredibly sad story in the film (or one of the extras-- I'm not sure which, now) about one of the producers going to dinner with one of the guitarists, Robert White, and hearing the opening bars of "My Girl" come on the radio in the restaurant. White starts to tell the waiter, "Hey, I'm the guy who played that riff," and stops, because he knows that he won't be believed. It's one of the most recognizable song intros in pop history, but the guy who played it was anonymous.

The movie sets out to correct that, both by bringing the surviving Funk Brothers together to tell their stories, and by staging (and filming) a concert with the band playing Motown classics, with (more or less) current singers supplying the vocals. The remarkable thing about the movie (or maybe just the editing) is that they don't come off as particularly bitter about their lack of recognition. The one point in the story where they really seem upset is when Berry Gordy shuts down the Detroit studios without warning, and moves to LA (the fact that neither Gordy nor any other label brass appear in the movie is probably telling). Other than that, it's mostly happy reminiscence, and musicians talking shop.

The inside look at the Motown operation is fascinating. It really was a hit factory, with songs controlled by the label and doled out to singers a few at a time, while the band worked long hours churning out records in a basement studio (the "Snake Pit"). They weren't paid particularly well (one of the funniest stories in the film concerns their habit of sneaking out after hours to play in jazz clubs and for other studios), but they did a lot to shape the sound. Credit for Motown's run of hits has traditionally gone to the songwriters, Smokey Robinson and Holland/ Dozier/ Holland in particular, but the film makes a good case for the band as a key element. It's certainly striking to note that the vast majority of the label's best stuff was played by the same bunch of guys.

It was also fascinating to learn the make-up of the band (which I never really knew, as they aren't credited very often). I had never realized the amount of duplication in the band-- they had three guitarists, two keyboard players, and two drummers-- but I was also surprised at some of the specialization-- one guy, Jack Armstrong, mostly just played tambourine.

They also had some real genius in the band-- one of the better moments has a surviving Funk Brother talking shop with a couple of current musicians, about the bass line in "What's Going On," played by the late, great James Jamerson. He tells one of the two to lie down on the floor, hands him an electric bass, and says "play that line." After a few fumbling notes, the guy says he can't do it. "Well, that's how it was recorded," is the reply. Supposedly, Marvin Gaye got the idea for the song late at night, and tracked Jamerson down in a club somewhere. When they got him into the studio, he was too drunk to stay on the stool he usually sat on, so he lay down on the floor to play a bass line that, apparently, many people can't play standing up.

The best testament to the band's talent comes in the concert footage, or, rather, the contrast between the all-star concert in which they play Motown songs, and the footage of them playing together in a jazz club. It's particularly striking with the keyboardists-- in the jazz club, pianist Joe Hunter is lively and innovative, ranging all over the keyboard. In the concerts, he mostly plays blocky chords, rarely moving more than a few keys in one direction or another. It really makes you appreciate how tightly controlled those songs are.

And yet, when they play the old songs, there's a certain genius in tightly controlled, blocky chords. The songs stand up, even in the face of some uninspiring vocal performances, particularly from Chaka Khan (though, to be fair, Gerald Levert does a nice job).

If you like Motown, or just like to hear musicians talking shop, this a fascinating movie. If you don't like Motown, well, watch it anyway, and maybe you'll pick up some culture...

Posted at 8:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

For Some Meaning of "Greatest"

In keeping with their new "Nothin' but Lists" format, Rolling Stone offers a list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Only, you know, they don't really mean "all time," as there's nothing before the mid-1950's (eat that, Mozart!), and they don't mean "songs" all that broadly, as there's nothing from genres outside pop music (no jazz, swing, musical theater, etc.). "500 Greatest Pop Songs of the Rock Era" is a more accurate description.

In the interests of filling some blog space, and allowing time for the Claritin I just took to take effect, I'll go through the top part of the list. I haven't gotten my print copy yet, so I haven't really looked at all the songs (I find paging through their online list very annoying).

A couple of general comments first: "Greatest Songs" is a pretty nebulous category, and a lot of the complaints about the Rolling Stone list (compiled from the "fifty favorite songs" of a list of current stars) center on the fact that these are mostly old songs (only two are from later than the 70's). But, depending on what you take "Greatest" to mean, that may make perfect sense-- personally, I would take "greatest" in this context to include some element of importance and influence. Under that sort of definition, the "greatest" songs should be older songs, as new stuff hasn't really had a chance to be influential yet. They do kind of take it to an extreme, though.

Anyway, the top twenty, with my comments:

That's about enough of this to get the basic idea. I don't have huge problems with most of their selections, though they vastly overrate weak Beatles tunes. And "The Tracks of My Tears" doesn't make the top twenty (it's #50)? Heresy!

As with most such lists, I'm sure that the selections get goofier as you go down the list, and outrages abound in the later portions. To choose an example at random, "Sweet Home Alabama" is at #398? Behind "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (#382), and just ahead of "Enter Sandman"? This is a joke, right?

But the list has already served its real purpose: to get people talking about Rolling Stone...

Posted at 8:32 AM | link | follow-ups | 19 comments

Sunday, November 21, 2004

...The Gods Themselves...

The science story of the moment seems to be the recent Gallup poll on evolution, which shows that only 35% of Americans believe " that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is... a scientific theory that has been well-supported by evidence." This has been the occasion of a lot of distress among science bloggers (Dave Bacon, Sean Carroll, Chris Mooney, and an allusion to the results from PZ Myers), along with more political sites like Gadflyer.

Saying this is going to cost me a little scientist street cred, but I'm not all that worked up over these results. I know, I'm supposed to wail, and gnash my teeth, and rail against the stupidity of my countrymen, but I just can't get all that worked up about this, for two reasons.

First of all, as a link from a commenter at Pharyngula shows, Americans are bad with science in general. Yeah, it's disgraceful that barely more than a third of people surveyed accept the cornerstone of modern biology as a well-supported scientific theory, but you know what? More than half of the people surveyed by the NSF in 2002 think that lasers work by focusing sound waves, and electrons are at least as big as atoms. Barely more than half knew that the Earth takes one year to orbit the Sun, and 34% of women surveyed thought that the Sun goes around the Earth.

People are just horribly badly educated about science across the board. The evolution issue is more politically charged than most (at least, I haven't noticed a well-funded political movement opposing heliocentrism. Even the Church has given up on that one...), but the public's ignorance of biology isn't especially bad, compared to their ignorance of science in general. Yeah, thirty-five percent of people surveyed think that evolution isn't supported by evidence. Big freakin' deal-- twenty-four percent think that sound travels faster than light. Wrap your head around that.

But even beyond that, I see reason for hope in the Gallup results. Not so much in the raw percentages, but in the trend over time. Gallup has done surveys on this topic six times since 1982, asking the question:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings... 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?

The percentages for these answers in 1982 were 38, 9, and 44, respectively. In the most recent survey, they're at 38, 13, and 45, respectively.

Think about what this means for a minute: the creationist movement has completely reinvented itself since 1982. They've re-cast their belief system as "Intelligent Design" theory, and written a ridiculous number of ridiculous books claiming to find fault with evolution. They've had the active assistance of a well-funded right-wing political machine to place stickers in textbooks and nutjobs on school boards, and in the last four years, they've had a friendly administration to put creationist tracts on sale at the Grand Canyon. And throughout, they've had the unwitting assistance of a compliant media, that turns back flips to provide "balanced" reporting, giving their cracked views equal time in news reports, if not biology classes.

And what do they have to show for all that effort? A statistically insignificant 1% gain in the number of people willing to admit to believing their nonsense. Meanwhile, the number of people giving the right answer has increased by 4%, while the perfectly acceptable compromise position has held steady. After twenty years of intense lobbying and frantic effort, they still trail the non-existent large-electron movement by seven percentage points.

Look, it's depressing that forty-odd percent of Americans believe the pernicious nonsense of young-Earth creationists. But it's depressing that 34% of women believe pernicious nonsense that hasn't been seriously put forward since the seventeenth century. And it's depressing that anyone at all believes sound travels faster than light. I'm not saying we should give up the fight against creationism, but at the same time, we should recognize that it's only a part of a broader fight against all sorts of scientific ignorance.

But look at it this way: despite the many and manifest idiocies that the American public happily buys into, they've proven remarkably resistant to this particular brand of nonsense, in spite of a concerted effort to push it on them. I think that's a sign that there's hope for America yet.

Posted at 9:56 PM | link | follow-ups | 22 comments

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