Watch Life-Affirming Performances from David Byrne’s New Broadway Musical American Utopia

It’s time, writes Kim Stanley Robinson in his essay “Dystopia Now,” to put aside the dystopias. We know the future (and the present) can look bleak. "It’s old news now,” and “perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more.” Of course, David Byrne has never been a dystopian artist. Even his catchy deconstructions of the banality of modern life, in “This Must Be the Place,” for example—or Love Lies Here, his disco musical about Imelda Marcos—are filled with empathetic poignancy and an earnest desire to rehumanize contemporary culture.

Still his oblique take on things has always seemed too skewed to call utopian. Lately, however, Byrne has become unambiguously sunny in his outlook, and not in any kind of starry-eyed Pollyannish way. His web project Reasons to Be Cheerful backs up its optimistic title with incisive longform investigative journalism.

His latest stage project, the musical American Utopia, which he performs with a cast of dancers and musicians from around the world, announces its intentions on the sleeves of the matching monochromatic suits its cast wears.

Barefoot and holding their instruments, Byrne and his backup singers, musicians, and dancers march on the “Road to Nowhere” with smiles hinting it might actually lead to someplace good, They perform this song (see them on Jimmy Fallon at the top), and a couple dozen more from Talking Heads and Byrne solo albums, especially last year’s American Utopia. In the course of the show, Byrne “lets his moralist outrage explode” yet “balances it with levity,” writes Stacey Anderson at Pitchfork. “There is a political engine to this performance… with a clearly humming progressive core… but Byrne’s goal is to urge kinder consideration of how we process the stressors of modernity.”

The musical doesn’t simply urge, it enacts, and proclaims, in spoken interludes, the story of an individual who opens up to the wider world. “Here’s a guy who’s basically in his head at the beginning,” Byrne told Rolling Stone. “And then by the end of the show he’s a very different person in a very different place.” The road to utopia, Byrne suggests, takes us toward community and out of isolation. American Utopia’s minimalist production communicates this idea with plenty of polished musicianship—especially from its six drummers working as one—but also a rigorous lack of spectacle. “I think audiences appreciate when nobody’s trying to fool them,” says Byrne.

See several performances from American Utopia, the musical, above, from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, and the Hudson Theatre, where it’s currently running. The musical debuted in England last June, causing NME to exclaim it may “just be the best live show of all time.” Its Broadway run has received similar acclaim. Below, see a trailer for the show arriving just in time, The Fader announces in a blurb, to “fight your cynicism.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

London Calling: A New Museum Exhibition Celebrates The Clash’s Iconic Album

In 1983, Rolling Stone proclaimed it the year of the “second British Invasion,” a “golden age” of music from the likes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, the Human League, Depeche Mode, and other radio-friendly synth pop hitmakers. The label stuck. Thirty years later, CBS News commemorated the year “a slew of [New Wave] acts came over to the states with their synthesizer-driven/R&B-inspired music.”

Amidst this frenzy of praise, no one mentions the Clash, who played their final show in 1983. The year previous they hit number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Rock the Casbah.” Combat Rock arguably proved that punk was still relevant in the early 1980s, though a punk transfigured into dancefloor-friendly funk, dub, and spoken word experimentation. Just as arguably, the Clash should be properly seen as leaders of the true second British Invasion—an invasion of British punk and post-punk bands in the late 70s.

Four charming lads who’d grown up playing in the clubs, they spoke a working-class idiom, wrote in a number of different voices, took a consistently anti-war stance, and took punk where it had not gone before with studio and world music experiments. One needn’t compare their 1979 double album London Calling to Sgt. Pepper’s—though it does top several critics best-of-all-time lists—to see its similar influence on contemporary music.

Its title track even hit number 30 on the Billboard Disco Top 100 chart in 1980, a move that helped open the door for several dozen punk-inspired British New Wave bands to come. London Calling wasn’t universally beloved. The commercial aims and more polished delivery divided punk fans, and some critics panned the album. None of that has mattered at all to the millions of devoted fans worldwide. Its iconic cover has become just as recognizable as the original that inspired it.

Now, and until April 2020, truly devoted fans can experience that album as no one has before by seeing in person, the actual Fender Precision bass that Paul Simenon smashed in the cover photo—only one of the many historic artifacts on display at the Museum of London in a free exhibition celebrating the album’s 40th anniversary. Visitors can also see “Mick Jones’s 1950s Gibson ES-295,” writes Ellen Gotoskey at Mental Floss, “Joe Strummer’s white 1950s Fender Esquire," and a pair of Topper Headon's drumsticks.

Also on display are “sketches from artist Ray Lowry that depict scenes from the London Calling tour,” as well as an early sketch by Lowry of the album cover, and “photos taken by Pennie Smith (who snapped the London Calling cover image).” Viewers can see Strummer’s typewriter, his notebook from the rehearsal and recording of the record, and Simenon's weathered late-70s leather jacket.

The exhibition may be free, but tickets to London are pricey. Still, fans can play along at home with the London Calling Scrapbook, a 120-page hardback book full of archival material and included in Sony’s anniversary re-release of the album. But no lover of the Clash is without their own copy of London Calling. Put it on in celebration and judge whether, as the Museum of London writes, its "music and lyrics remain as relevant today as they were on release."

via Mental Floss

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Blade Runner Captured the Imagination of a Generation of Electronic Musicians

“I feel that there is ‘Before Blade Runner’ and ‘After Blade Runner,’” says director Denis Villeneuve. “The movie was like a landmark in film history aesthetic.” The quote comes from this FACTmagazine promo released ahead of Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049, which examines the impact the soundtrack had on science fiction films and electronic music, as well how its entire aesthetic echoed into the ‘90s and beyond.

Composer Vangelis and director Ridley Scott had worked together previously on a Chanel commercial, and the composer had thought the choice to use his music was “brave,” according to Villeneuve. A few years later Vangelis would be asked to compose the score, which he did, improvising over footage.

The gearheads in the doc point out the Lexicon 224 reverb, a great analog effects unit, as well as the “beast,” the Yahama CS80, which would often go out of tune. (Check out YouTube user Perfect Circuit trying out some of its features).

“The best time (the synth) found its voice was on that album,” says musician Kuedo.
The doc also interviews Tricky, Gary Numan, Ikonika, Abayomi, Clare Wieck, Kuedo, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, and music producer Hans Berg, all of whom have found Blade Runner creeping into their work intentionally or subliminally. Ikonika even calls her music alter-ego a “replicant,” after the film’s androids. But the film for her was a warning: “You could see the future taking over and it would be the good times,” she says about the early ‘80s. And “then Blade Runner was like, after that, this is going to happen.” The soundtrack has gone on to have its own series of re-releases, just like Scott has released a Director’s Cut of the film.

First, it was never properly released as an album until 1994. Immediately bootlegs appeared collecting much more of the score from the film. In 2002, the best of them, the “Esper Edition,” delivered 33 tracks from the score. (And there's a further "Retirement Edition" of the "Esper" kicking around out there.) Then in 2007, Universal Music released a 25th anniversary edition, with an extra disc of music composed for the film and *another* disc of *new* music Vangelis composed for the release. All of which shows a work that is beloved and held dear by fans.

Now that we’ve hit the month depicted in the film, and Los Angeles doesn’t exactly look like the opening scene (smoke and fire, yes; rain, not so much), it's time to take stock of its dystopian vision.

As musician Kuedo says, “Almost 40 years later we’re still chasing it, but it’s still there ahead of us.”

Note: Villeneuve chose Christopher Nolan favorite Hans Zimmer to compose the sequel’s score, working with Benjamin Wallfisch...both much safer choices than Vangelis.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Watch 9 Classic & Lost Punk Films (1976-1981): All Restored and Now Streaming Online

There is a purist feeling about punk to which I’m sometimes sympathetic: punk died, and its death was an inevitable consequence of its live-fast-die-young philosophy and thus should be reverently respected. To immortalize and commercialize punk is to betray its anarchist spirit, full stop. This kind of piety doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, some of punk’s most influential impresarios were shameless hawkers of a sensationalized product. For another, from the critic’s perspective, “there is probably no one such thing as ‘punk.’”

So writes editor Bob Mehr at Nicholas Winding Refn’s online curatorial project Ears, Eyes and Throats: Restored Classic and Lost Punk Films 1976-1981. Punk emerged as a series of rock and roll art pranks and anti-pop stances; it also emerged in publishing, photography, poetry readings, performance art, graphic art, fashion, and, yes, film. Like earlier movements devoted to multiple media (Dada especially comes to mind, and like Dada, punk’s defining feature may be the manifesto), punk names an assemblage of creative gestures, loosely related more by attitude than aesthetic.

Punk’s looseness “presents a golden opportunity” for film curators, writes Mehr. “If there aren’t a lot of barriers thrown in your way, you’ve got a potentially wide array of work to choose from that can click together in illuminating ways.” The films showcased in Ears, Eyes and Throats feature few of the punk superstars memorialized in the usual tributes. Instead, to “illustrate the breadth of this material”—that is, the breadth of what might qualify as “punk film”—Mehr has chosen “films (and bands) which the general public probably wasn’t familiar with.”

This includes “San Francisco-by-way-of-Bloomington-Indiana’s MX-80 Sound and their Why Are We Here? (1980), Richard Galkowski’s Deaf/Punk, featuring The Offs (1979) [see a clip above] and Stephanie Beroes’ Pittsburth-based Debt Begins at 20 (1980).” There are other rare and obscure films, like Galkowski’s Moody Teenager (1980) and Liz Keim and Karen Merchant’s never-before-seen In the Red (1978). And there are films from more recognizable names—two from “legendary anonymous collective” The Residents, whom many might say are more Dada than punk, and a “2K digital restoration of the legendary first film by DEVO, In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1976).”

Is punk relevant? Maybe the question rashly assumes we know what punk is. Expand your definitions with the nine films at Ears, Eyes and Throats, all of which you can stream there. And revise your sense of a time when punk, like hip-hop, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D says in an essay featured on the site, wasn’t something you “could go out and just buy… Couldn’t slide yourself into punk. You had to kind of get creative.”

via Metafilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Klaus Nomi Debut His New Wave Vaudeville Show: The Birth of the Opera-Singing Space Alien (1978)

Given the history of New York’s East Village as the first foreign language neighborhood in the country after waves of European immigration, perhaps it’s only natural that Klaus Nomi, opera-singing German performance artist who made a name for himself in the punk clubs of the late 70s, would find a home there.

By his time, the tenements had given way to other demographic waves: including Beatniks, writers, actors, Warholian Factory superstars, and punk and New Wave scenesters, whom Dangerous Mind’s Richard Metzger calls a “second generation” after Warhol, “drawn in by that Warhol myth but doing their own things.”

Even amidst the thriving DIY experimentalism of Post-Warholian art, fashion, and music, of a scene including Talking Heads, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring, Nomi stood out. It was the way he seemed to inhabit two time periods at once. He arrived both as a cabaret performer from Weimar Germany—a tragic clown with the voice of an angel—and as a thoroughly convincing intergalactic traveler, teleporting in briefly from the future.

No one was prepared for this when he made his New York debut at Irving Plaza’s New Wave Vaudeville show in 1978, evoking an even earlier era by singing “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix,” from Camille Saint-Saëns' 1877 opera Samson et Dalila. After his stunning performance, he would disappear from the stage in a confusion of strobe lights and smoke. East Village artist Joey Arias remembers, “It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home.”

Other acts at New Wave Vaudeville, a four-night East Village variety show, were “doing a punk version of Mickey Rooney, ‘We’re going to do a goofy show,’” says Kristian Hoffman, the musician who became Nomi’s musical director. In came Nomi with “a whole different level of accomplishment.” MC David McDermott was obliged to announce that he was not singing to a recording. You can see Nomi debut at New Wave Vaudeville above, in a clip from the 2004 film The Nomi Song.

The significance of these early performances goes far beyond the immediate shock of their first audiences. At these shows, Nomi met Hoffman, who would form his band and write the songs for which he became best known. Producer and director of the New Wave Vaudeville show Susan Hannaford and Ann Magnuson were also the owner and bartender at Club 57, where Nomi would help them organize exhibits by artists like Kenny Scharf.

Seeing Nomi’s debut can still feel a bit like watching a visitor arrive from both the past and the future at once. And it is lucky we have this early footage of an artist who would to on to perform with David Bowie and become a gay icon and pioneer of theatrical New Wave. But we should also see his arrival on the scene as an essential document of the history of the East Village, and its transformation into “a playground,” as Messy Nessy writes, “for artistic misanthropes, anarchists, exhibitionists, queers, poets, punks and everything in between,” including opera-singing aliens from West Berlin.

via Messy Nessy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

82 Animated Interviews with Living, Dead, Celebrated & Sometimes Disgraced Celebrities

Who wants to live in the present? It’s such a limiting period, compared to the past.

Roger Ebert, Playboy 1990

Were Ebert alive today would he still express himself thusly in a recorded interview? His remarks are specific to his cinematic passion, but still. As a smart Midwesterner, he would have realized that the corn has ears and the potatoes have eyes. Remarks can be taken out of context. (Witness the above.)

Recent history has shown that not everyone is keen to roll back the clock—women, people of color, and gender non-conforming individuals have been reclaiming their narratives in record numbers, airing secrets, exposing injustice, and articulating offenses that can no longer stand.

If powerful, older, white heterosexual men in the entertainment business are exercising verbal caution these days when speaking as a matter of public record, there’s some goodly cause for that.

It also makes the archival celebrity interviews excerpted for Quoted Studios' animated series, Blank on Blank, feel very vibrant and uncensored, though be forewarned that your blood may boil a bit just reviewing the celebrity line up—Michael JacksonWoody Allen, Clint Eastwood holding forth on the Pussy Generation 10 years before the Pussyhat Project legitimized common usage of that charged word….

(In full disclosure, Blank on Blank is an oft-reported favorite here at Open Culture.)

Here’s rapper Tupac Skakur, a year and a half before he was killed in a drive by shooting, casting himself as a tragic Shakespearean hero,

His musings on how differently the public would have viewed him had he been born white seem even more relevant today. Readers who are only passingly acquainted with his artistic output and legend may be surprised to hear him tracing his allegiance to “thug life” to the positive role he saw the Black Panthers playing in his single mother’s life when he was a child.

On the other hand, Shakur’s lavish and freely expressed self pity at the way the press reported on his rape charge (for which he eventually served 9 months) does not sit at all well in 2019, nor did it in 1994.

Like the majority of Blank on Blank entries, the recording was not the interview’s final form, but rather a journalistic reference. Animator Patrick Smith may add a layer of visual editorial, but in terms of narration, every subject is telling their own undiluted truth.

It is interesting to keep in mind that this was one of the first interviews the Blank on Blank team tackled, in 2013.

Six years later, it’s hard to imagine they would risk choosing that portion of the interview to animate. Had Shakur lived, would he be cancelled?

Guess who was the star of the very first Blank on Blank to air on PBS back in 2013?

Broadcaster and television host Larry King. While King has steadfastly rebutted accusations of groping, we suspect that if the Blank on Blank team was just now getting around to this subject, they’d focus on a different part of his 2001 Esquire profile than the part where he regales interviewer Cal Fussman with tales of pre-cellphone “seduction.”

It’s only been six years since the series’ debut, but it’s a different world for sure.

If you’re among the easily triggered, living legend Meryl Streep’s thoughts on beauty, harvested in 2014 from a 2008 conversation with Entertainment Weekly’s Christine Spines, won’t offer total respite, but any indignation you feel will be in support of, not because of this celebrity subject.

It’s actually pretty rousing to hear her merrily exposing Hollywood players’ piggishness, several years before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke.

For even more evidence of “a different world,” check out interviewer Howard Smith’s remark to Janis Joplin in her final interview-cum-Blank-on-Blank episode, four days before here 1970 death:

A lot of women have been saying that the whole field of rock music is nothing more than a big male chauvinist rip off and when I say, “Yeah, what about Janis Joplin? She made it,” they say, “Oh…her.” It seems to bother a lot of women’s lib people that you’re kind of so up front sexually.

Joplin, stung, unleashes a string of invectives against feminists and women, in general. One has to wonder if this reaction was Smith’s goal all along. Or maybe I’m just having flashbacks to middle school, when the popular girls would always send a delegate disguised as a concerned friend to tell you why you were being shunned, preferably in a highly public gladiatorial arena such as the lunchroom.

I presume that sort of stuff occurs primarily over social media these days.

Good on the Blank on Blank staff for picking up on the tenor of this interview and titling it “Janis Joplin on Rejection.”

You can binge watch a playlist of 82 Blank on Blank episodes, featuring many thoughts few express so openly anymore, here or right below.

When you’re done with that, you’ll find even more Blank on Blank entries on the creators’ website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Art Nouveau Inspired the Psychedelic Designs of the 1960s

“In the late 1800’s new technology was changing the way the world worked, and the way that it looked,” the Vox video above explains. “Some people, especially artists, living through the technological revolution, were not so into all the new industry. To be blunt, they thought it was ugly.” They responded with organic forms and intricate patterns that evoked a pre-industrial world while simultaneously showcasing, and selling, the most modern ideas and products.

Drawing on the handcrafted aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Gothic revival, the florid, ornate paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, a fascination with Japanese woodblock prints, and the strange, beautiful illustrations of sea creatures by Ernst Haeckel, artists began to challenge late Victorian orthodoxies. The style we now know as Art Nouveau emerged.

It went by many names: Jugendstil, Mondernisme, Tiffany Style, Glasgow Style, Stile Liberty, Sezessionstil. Each identified a collection of traits with which we are now familiar from the many hundreds of posters and advertisements of the time. Grand, flowing lines, intricate patterns, vibrant, often clashing colors, bold hand-lettering, feminine figures and elaborate, exotic themes….

The descriptions of Art Nouveau’s qualities also apply to the poster and album cover art of the psychedelic 1960s, and no wonder, given the significant influence of the former upon the latter. The artists of the acid rock period rebelled not so much against industrialization as the military-industrial-complex. At the epicenter of the movement was the San Francisco of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

Venues like the Filmore and the Avalon advertised the hippie revolution with eye-catching posters inspired by those that once lined the thoroughfares of Europe in an age before TV, radio, and neon signs. Art Nouveau-like designs had already returned with the flower patterns popular in fabrics at the time. 60s graphic designers saw these seductive styles as the key to a new psychedelic vision.

It’s easy to see why. Flowers, curves, peacocks, updates of Art Nouveau images from the past (including skeletons and roses)—dialed up to 11 with “eye-vibrating” colors—made the perfect visual accompaniment for the acid-flavored Romanticism that took root during the Vietnam era. Even the fonts were poached from turn-of-the-century graphic art. Famous 60s designers like Wes Wilson confessed their admiration for modernism, “the idea,” Wilson told Time in 1967, “of really putting it all out there.”

Just as Art Nouveau flowered into an international style, with some presciently trippy manifestations in Brazil and other places, so too did the 60s psychedelic poster, spreading from San Francisco to every corner of the globe. And as Art Nouveau became the house style for the counterculture of the early 20th century—celebrating sexual and cultural experimentation and occult interests—it announced the birth of flower power and its recovery of modernism's expressive freedoms.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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