The White House’s Forgotten 1970s Vinyl Record Collection: Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, Captain Beefheart, Donna Summer & More

Though it may not be for everyone, the job of President of the United States of America does have its perks. Take, for example, the ability to screen any film you like at the White House: here on Open Culture, we’ve previously featured lists of movies watched by Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. But for Carter in particular, music seems to have been even more important than cinema. So explains John Chuldenko, stepson of that former president’s son Jack, in the episode of The 1600 Sessions above. In it, he tells of his rediscovery of an institution created under Nixon, greatly expanded under Carter, and packed away under Reagan: the White House Record Library.

“The Library, begun by First Lady Pat Nixon, was curated by a volunteer commission of noted music journalists, scholars, and other experts,” says the White House Historical Association. When it came time to update it at the end of the nineteen-seventies, writes Washingtonian’s Rob Brunner, “the selection process would be headed by John Hammond, a hugely influential figure who had signed Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen.” Hammond also enlisted genre experts like “Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis, who was responsible for jazz, and Boston music critic Bob Blumenthal, who led the pop picks.”

The resulting collection of more than 2,000 LPs contains more than a few albums you wouldn’t expect to hear at the White House. These include Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (which contains “one of the greatest critiques of both Southern and Northern racism,” as Blumenthal recalls), Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. On the more danceable end of the spectrum, the White House Record Library also includes Funkadelic’s, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Donna Summer — all of their work selected expressly for presidential use.

Having last been updated in 1981 and summarily carted off to “a secure undisclosed storage facility,” the Library remains a musical time capsule of that era. So Chuldenko discovered when, following a thread of family lore, he managed to track down a curator who could arrange a listening session for him. “There is no rap or hip-hop in there,” he said to Washingtonian. “There’s no electronic music. There are no boy bands, no Madonna or Britney Spears. No Michael Jackson!” Having succeeded in his mission of finding the White House Record Library, he’s set for himself the even more formidable challenge of bringing it up to date. Certainly its geographical purview will have to widen, given how America now listens to so much music from beyond its borders. Would the White House care to hear any K-pop recommendations?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How Hans Zimmer Created the Otherworldly Soundtrack for Dune

Many emotional moments were made at this year’s big awards shows. The Slap, amidst so many historic wins; poignant tributes and criminal omissions; former actor-turned-wartime-hero-president Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech, the return of Louis C.K…. Everybody’s got a lot to process. Pop culture can feel like a St. Vitus dance. One half-expects celebrities to start dropping from exhaustion. But then there’s Hans Zimmer’s Oscar acceptance speech, delivered in a white terry bathrobe, a miniature Oscar statuette in his pocket, a big goofy, 2 a.m. grin on his face. The man could not have looked more relaxed, winning his second Oscar 30 years after The Lion King.

Was he still in lockdown? No. On the night in question, Zimmer was in a hotel in Amsterdam, on tour with his band. “His category was among the eight that were handed out before the televised broadcast began,” Yahoo reports, “but he made sure his fans knew just how thrilled he was.” Zimmer posted a mini-acceptance speech to social media. “Who else has pajamas like this?” he joked to the other musicians gathered in the room. “Actually, let me say this, and this is for real. Had it not been for you, most of the people in this room, this would never have happened.” He is, as he says, “for real.”

As the musicians who worked with Zimmer on his Oscar-winning Dune soundtrack (stream it here) have gone on the record to say, the process was highly collaborative. “He’ll outline the desired end result rather than prescribing a specific means of getting there,” guitarist Guthrie Govan told The New York Times. “For one cue, he just said, ‘This needs to sound like sand.'” Zimmer’s methods offer new ways out of the cul-de-sac much of the creative industry seems to find itself in, repeating the same unhealthy compulsions. “If someone has a great idea,” he says, “I’m the first one to say, yes. Let’s go on that adventure.”

Along with collaboration, there is vision, and the willingness–as Zimmer says in Vanity Fair video interview at the top–to “invent instruments that don’t exist. Invent sounds that don’t exist.” Such future-thinking has always characterized his approach, from his synth pop and new wave work in the late 70s, including a stint killing the radio star with the Buggles, to his groundbreaking film composition work on Rain Man, The Thin Red Line, and the gritty blockbusters of Christopher Nolan. Though he’s scored action and adventure films unlikely to ever be considered art, Zimmer’s own way of working is thoroughly avant-garde.

As he tells it above, the point, in composing for Dune, was to throw out the science fiction boilerplate, the “orchestral sounds, romantic period tonalities” that have dominated at least since Kubrick’s 2001. On the other hand, Zimmer says, he wanted to get rid of modern syncopation. “Maybe in the future, we will not have regular beats. Maybe we will have actually progressed as human beings that we don’t need disco beats to enjoy ourselves,” he says laughing, before going on to demonstrate how he and his collaborators created some of the most original music in film history. Of course, the disco beat is comforting because it mimics the human heart. In making his Dune score, Zimmer was composing for a kind of post-human future, one dominated not by award-show drama but by giant sandworms.

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

This Is Spinal Tap Will Get a Sequel 40 Years Later, Reuniting Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest & Harry Shearer

Fans of James Cameron’s Avatar are expressing astonishment that its long-expected sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, will have taken thirteen years to get to theaters. That delay, of course, is nothing next to the 35 years that separated Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, or the 36 between Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick, which comes out next month. But the recently announced sequel to This Is Spinal Tap tops them all: “Spinal Tap II will see Rob Reiner return as both film-maker on and off the screen along with Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest,” writes the Guardian‘s Benjamin Lee. “The film will be released in 2024 on the 1984 original’s 40th anniversary.”

Critics praised This Is Spinal Tap back in 1984, but it took time to become a revered classic of the improvised-mockumentary genre. In fact that genre hadn’t exist at all, which resulted in some viewers not quite getting the joke. “When the film first came out, we showed it in Dallas and people came up to me and said, why would you make a movie about a band nobody’s ever heard of?” says director Rob Reiner. “And one that’s so bad?”

Or as Christopher Guest remembers a couple girls at the concession counter observing: “These guys are so stupid.” The befuddlement extended even to collaborators in the filmmaking process: “I don’t understand this,” said cinematographer Peter Smokler, who’d worked on the Altamont documentary Gimme Shelter. “This isn’t funny. This is exactly what they do.”

Such reactions pay indirect but great tribute to the painstaking craft and observatory wit of Spinal Tap’s creators. Those creators — Reiner, Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer — tell these stories in the Today interview above, conducted in 2019 to mark This Is Spinal Tap‘s 35th anniversary. In that time they’d occasionally reunited as Spinal Tap for live performances and real albums, the last of which came out in 2009. Perhaps that’s kept them ready to get back into character, pitch-perfect English accents and all, and put on — as they’ll be forced to in a plot shaped by realistic-sounding music-industry vagaries — one last concert. But like any belated sequel, it brings proportionally inflated fan expectations: specifically, about whether they’ll be able to go up to twelve.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Two Decades of Fire Island DJ Sets Get Unearthed, Digitized & Put Online: Stream 232 Mixtapes Online (1979-1999)

“I was the young, lonely gay boy in the Midwest who had no idea paradise existed. Everything about the Pines was new, the very idea of a place where you could play on the beach and hold hands with a guy and be with like-minded people and dance all night with a man.” — photographer Tom Bianchi 

Disco did not get demolished at Comiskey Park in 1979. It may have disappeared from popular culture after jumping the duck, but it never left the New York nightclubs that had nurtured its exuberant sound — Studio 54, Paradise Garage, The Sanctuary…. Four on the floor beats pounded all night in the dawning decade of the 80s, only the beat soon became house music, an electrified disco derivative — without the horns and string sections — first played in clubs by DJs like Larry Levan, who ruled the Paradise Garage for a decade and “changed dance music forever.”

The sounds of Manhattan nightlife at the turn of the 80s have gone mainstream, but stories about the early, underground days of house tend to leave out another scene just miles away, led by DJs as beloved as Levan.

For LGBTQ New Yorkers, the party moved every summer to Fire Island, where artists, vacationers, celebrities, and DJs crowded clubs like The Pavilion and the Ice Palace to hear DJs Robbie Leslie, Michael Jorba, Richie Bernier, Giancarlo, Teri Beaudoin, Michael Fierman, and Roy Thode, “whose performance at the Ice Palace showed how shimmery, guitar-driven disco slowly gave way to the driving bass of house music,” The New York Times notes.

Thode became a legend not only in the Fire Island summer scene but during his residency at Studio 54, at the personal invitation of club owner Steve Rubell. Fire Island DJs played records they heard in the off season at the island’s clubs, or debuted newly-released tracks. (Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park” made its debut on the island, for example.) “Fire Island’s infamous bacchanals have gone on to become the stuff of gay myth and legend,” write Matt Moen at Paper. The island has also long been “an iconic refuge and safe haven for New York City’s queer community dating back well over half a century.” One resident calls it a “gay Shangri La.” Another compares it to Israel, a “spiritual homeland.”

Split between two towns, Cherry Grove and the Pines, the summer retreat has especially “been a haven for the creative,” says Bobby Bonnano, founder and president of the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society. It has also been a hideaway for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Calvin Klein, and Perry Ellis. Bonnano’s extensive online history of the island documents its 20th century origins as a place for gay artists who built houses in a distinctive architectural style that defines the island to this day, and who partied hard at clubs like The Pavillion. The mixes here from Fire Island’s best DJs come from one such beach house, bought by Peter Kriss and Nate Pinsley, who discovered a box of tapes left behind by a previous owner.

The couple gave the box of tapes to their friend Joe D’Espinosa. A software engineer and DJ, D’Espinoza has spent “countless hours” digitizing, remastering, and uploading the collection to Mixcloud. The resulting archive represents a “treasure trove of recorded DJ sets,” spanning “two decades worth of parties,” Moen writes, from 1979 through 1999. The Pine Walk collection features more than 200 tapes (some from gigs in Manhattan),”taken from from Memorial Day weekenders, Labor Day parties, season openings and recurring club nights.” These are solid sets of vintage disco and classic house, many of them documenting the transition from one to the other. Browse and stream the full collection on Mixcloud.

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

U2’s Bono & the Edge Give Surprise Concert in Kyiv Metro/Bomb Shelter: “Stand by Me,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “With or Without You”

Volodymyr Zelenskyy invited U2 to perform in Kyiv as a show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. And they showed up, playing an improvised acoustic set in a Kyiv Metro station, which now doubles as a bomb shelter. Above you can watch Bono and the Edge perform “Stand by Me,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “With or Without You.” At points, they’re joined by members of the Ukrainian band Antytila.


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The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea Presents a Bass Lesson, and Essential Advice That Every Bass Player Should Know

“What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians?” goes the hoary old musicians’ joke. Answer: “a bass player.” Hahaha. Very funny. And just plain untrue. Maybe the bass has fewer strings to master than the guitar, but it requires better timing, and — most importantly — more listening than any other instrument in a band setting. Or so says Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band I sometimes think of as a bunch of guys who hang out with a bass player.

All musicians need to listen carefully to other players on stage, but the bass player’s role is special, Flea says in the video above, excerpted from the hour-long bass lesson you can watch in full below. Bassists need to listen to melody players and soloists, supporting their parts with subtlety and nuance, without (says Flea of all people) doing the kind of showboating that pulls focus from the leads. Bass players also need to lock in with the drummer, listening so intently they can fit their notes right in the center of each drum hit.

This hardly sounds like unskilled musical labor, even if most bassists can’t — and don’t need to — play with the speed and ferocity as our instructor above. But Flea as teacher isn’t trying to teach others how to play the way he does, a style inspired by legends like slap bass pioneer Larry Graham and Motown stalwart James Jamerson. He’s giving students his take on the basics — first learn to walk, then learn to walk really, really well, with lots of practice. These basics include going over the parts of a bass guitar, talking about tuning, and learning different ways of hitting the strings, from plucking to picking to, yes, slapping, within reason.

Coming from a player who so commands the spotlight with his bass theatrics, Flea’s advice to aspiring players might seem oddly conservative. But it’s the bass player’s job, he says, to make everyone else in the band sound good. And the better a bassist is at helping other players shine, the more they stand out as a great musician in their own right.

See timestamps for the different topics in Flea’s lesson just below:

0:01 Flea Bass
7:27 Restring and Tuning
12:51 Plucking
16:36 Slapping
22:53 Picking
23:53 Finger Practice
30:24 Major Scale
44:34 Final Thoughts

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

Watch a New Animation of Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life, with Music by Yo-Yo Ma

…I would like not to underestimate the value of the world view which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past.

– Richard Feynman

In 1955, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk on the value of science to members of the National Academy of Sciences at at Caltech University.

In the wake of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his involvement with the Manhattan Project had been cause for serious depression and soul searching.

He concluded that the pursuit of scientific knowledge remained valuable to society, even though such knowledge comes without operating instructions, and thus can be put to evil purposes.

In the Caltech speech, he cited the life improving technological and medical breakthroughs that are the result of scientific explorations, as well as the scientific field’s allegiance to the concept that we must be free to dissent, question, and discuss:

If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination.

(This strikes a profound chord in 2022, remembering how some extremely vocal politicians and citizens took changing public health mandates as evidence of conspiracy, rather than an ever-deepening scientific understanding of how an unfamiliar virus was operating.)

Any child with an interest in STEM will be gratified to learn that Feynman also found much to admire in “the fun …which some people get from reading and learning and thinking about (science), and which others get from working in it.

Throughout his speech, he refrained from technical jargon, using language that those whose passions skew more toward the arts can understand to invoke the experience of scientific discovery.

His meditations concerning the interconnectedness between every molecule “stupidly minding its own business” and everything else in the known universe, including himself, a human standing beside the sea, trying to make sense of it all, is of a piece with Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.

Untitled Ode to the Wonder of Life

by Richard Feynman

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are the rushing waves

mountains of molecules

each stupidly minding its own business

trillions apart

yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages before any eyes could see

year after year

thunderously pounding the shore as now.

For whom, for what?

On a dead planet

with no life to entertain.

Never at rest

tortured by energy

wasted prodigiously by the sun

poured into space.

A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea

all molecules repeat

the patterns of one another

till complex new ones are formed.

They make others like themselves

and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity

living things

masses of atoms

DNA, protein

dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle

onto dry land

here it is

standing: atoms with consciousness;

matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,

wonders at wondering: I

a universe of atoms

an atom in the universe

The Marginalian’s (formerly Brain Pickings) Maria Popova seizes on this interlude for the final installment of her video series, The Universe in Verse, above, collaborating with animator Kelli Anderson on a “perspective-broadening, mind-deepening” visual interpretation of Feynman’s excerpted remarks.

Flowing under and around Feynman’s narration is an original composition by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose renown in the field of music is on par with Feynman’s in physics, and who notes in the introduction to The Quotable Feynman:

While he paid close attention to problems we face and generate, he also knew that humans are a subset of nature, and nature held for him the greatest fascination – for the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man, and nature guards her secrets jealously.

Read Feynman’s complete speech to the National Academy of Sciences at at Caltech University here.

Watch all nine chapters of The Universe in Verse here.

via The Marginalian

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Revisiting the Music of the Pioneering German Composer Klaus Schulze (RIP), the “Godfather of Techno,” Ambient, German Experimental Psych Rock & More

This past Tuesday, April 26, experimental German electronic composer and musician Klaus Schulze died, leaving a musical legacy as significant as they come in the past half-century or so. Crowned the “godfather of techno,” Pitchfork writes, he was integral to both Krautrock (as 1970s German progressive rock was unflatteringly called) and the “Berlin School” of techno, and he “laid the groundwork for ambient, IDM, and many other sub-genres of contemporary electronic music. His relevance never waned.” Although a legend among those in the know, Schulze isn’t known in broader popular culture.

He should be, and will be, says Oscar-winning Dune composer Hans Zimmer, who worked parts of Schulze’s 1978 composition “Frank Herbert” (below) into the 2021 film’s score. “Klaus Schulze’s music has never been as relevant as it is now,” said Zimmer.

Soon afterward, Schulz recorded a new album, Deus Arrakis, scheduled for release on June 10. “I needed more of that spice,” the 74-year-old composer said. (See him above, sitting cross-legged, with blonde Prince Valiant ‘do, performing “For Barry Graves” live in Köln in 1977.) “From there I felt completely unleashed and just played and played…”

Given Schulze’s staying power and influence, it may be puzzling that he isn’t mentioned with household names like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, or even hipper names to drop like Karlheinz Stockhausen or Jean-Michel Jarre. This is in part because he rarely stuck with one sound long enough for praise and couldn’t have cared less whether anyone knew who he was. Though an early member, as a percussionist, of Tangerine Dream, Schulze left after their 1970 debut, Electronic Meditation to form the band Ash Ra Tempel, which he also left after their stellar self-titled debut, a psychedelic classic (though he’d return occasionally over the decades) to form and dissolve project after project, while also consistently releasing albums under his own name.

Moving from band to band was hardly unusual in the 1970s German music scene. Two of Kraftwerk’s founding members split off to form major post-punk influence NEU! (then further split for other projects); the list of current and former Tangerine Dream members runs over two score entries. Schulze’s “almost allergic response to the past,” Pitchfork writes, set him apart. “The composer refused to release reworks of his catalog, instead preferring to push forward and discover new sounds.” His experimentation started as a drummer in the 1960s for Berlin bands, when he began “placing his guitar on the ground and playing it with unlikely objects such as metal tubes and copper plates.”

“His first solo release was Irrlicht in 1972,” The Guardian notes, “a composition in four parts that involved Schulze manipulating a broken organ, recordings of an orchestra and an amplifier to create a towering wall of sound.” His next album, 1973’s Cyborg, began his use of synthesizers, which continued throughout his 50-album run (including live albums and soundtracks) but never typecast him. After CyborgRolling Stone writes:

Schulze and his labelmates formed the Krautrock supergroup Cosmic Jokers and their eponymous debut album. That collaboration segued into the most vital period of Schulze’s solo career, as the mid-to-late Seventies saw the release of electronic music classics like 1975’s Timewind, 1976’s Moondawn and 1978’s “X.”

The list of solo albums and collaborations continues (including an all-Moog interpretation of Pink Floyd titled Dark Side of the Moog), stacking up into a must-hear list of titles for those unfamiliar with Schulze’s work. “I hope never to get boring,” he said in 1997, and he meant it. “If an artist cannot amaze people anymore, that’s the end.”

Reaching the end of his own life, after a long illness, Schulze did deign to revisit a moment from his past. It propelled him forward into his final work. “At the end of that second private Dune journey,” he said, “I realized: Deus Arrakis became another salute to Frank Herbert and to that great gift of life in general.”

Schulze lived and still lives in the music he inspired, performed, and recorded. “There was still so much to write about him as a human and artist,” concludes a statement from his family, “but he probably would have said by now: nuff said!… You know what he was like: his music matters, not his person.” Or maybe it was that the two were inseparable. Hear music from his upcoming and final album, Deus Arrakis, just above.

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

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