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On Music

Fania at Fifty

October 9, 2014 | by

The rise of a salsa empire and the decline of boogaloo.

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Photo: Courtesy of Codigo Group

Fania Records, the legendary Latin music label, has been celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a series of events in New York and Los Angeles, its opening salvo a Central Park show last June spotlighting salsero Roberto Roena. It felt, indeed, like a party. Hundreds of dancers flooded the area in front of the stage. Those present merely to spectate were forced backward. Scattered around the perimeter were those less enthused: numerous youths lolled against concession tents and information booths, occupied with handheld devices, presumably corralled into coming by parents either filled with missionary zeal or simply unable to get a babysitter. The sharp contours of the audience underscored the relationship between the label’s haloed status and the historical circumstances that enabled its ascent.

In its sixties and seventies heyday, Fania was the most powerful force in the Latin music industry, and salsa was the most powerful force in Latin music. The depth of the connection between label and genre is pronounced. Ask die-hard fans to list their favorite figures from salsa’s golden age, and nine out of ten answers will be artists whose résumés include Fania for at least a record or two (Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente), if not for significant stretches of their careers (Celia Cruz, Willie Colón). It is commonplace to liken Fania to Motown. The parallel fits, almost. Imagine if Motown, after a few years of competing with Atlantic and Stax/Volt, had decided to buy them out. That’s what Fania did, more or less, when it acquired its main rivals, Alegre and Tico.

Fania was an unprecedented financial engine, exporting Boricua and Nuyorican culture all over the world. The label held what musician and ethnomusicographer Christopher Washburne calls a “monopoly on all aspects of the salsa industry,” controlling “recording contracts, concert promotion, and radio airplay.” Labelmates from different bands performed and recorded as the Fania All-Stars. This was synergy before synergy, when it was still called monopoly, and it created salsa audiences in Colombia, Nigeria, Russia, Japan, et cetera.

But the familiar narrative of Fania as salsa, salsa as Fania—the narrative on display this June—is only half complete, eliding as it does another genre, the buried foundation on which Fania was built: Latin boogaloo. Read More »

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Talk About Beauties

September 22, 2014 | by

The lost recordings of a phantom musician.

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Alexis Zoumbas, illustrated by R. Crumb.

The text printed on the label of the Greek 78-rpm disc translated as “Alexis Zoumbas ~ violin, accompanied by young men of the Epirot village of Politsani.” Its significance, and the meaning behind its very existence, stymied all speculation. No one had heard what was etched into these grooves since they’d been pressed—the Greek title for the song was untranslatable, and the recording itself was undocumented, hushed into being for no perceptible reason other than to come into my possession.

A week before this record arrived at my post office, I’d finally untethered myself from Zoumbas and his recorded legacy. After two years of focused inquiry, I’d finished work on Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, a collection of his recordings. I’d let go. But any comfort I found in that was lost when this disc came into my life.

The 78 rpm record was the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for more than fifty years. These fragile vessels of sound are coveted by collectors who, like myself, have developed a precise yet vaguely sexual phraseology to describe their physical condition. This Zoumbas disc, for instance, was in excellent condition, but with a tight hairline crack and a slightly enlarged spindle hole.

And what of its artist? Alexis Zoumbas was a phantom musician, a violinist. Born in the hinterlands of Epirus, Greece, in 1883, he immigrated to New York City in 1910 and died practically unknown in Detroit in 1946. The myth surrounding his life maintained that he’d fled Greece after murdering his landlord, and that he himself had been gunned down by a jealous lover. Drawn in by his music and intrigued by these stories, I become obsessed with his life. I traveled to his home village, Grammeno, to interview his two surviving nephews, Michalis and Napoleon Zoumbas, both retired musicians in their eighties. In Ioannina, the capitol of Epirus, I unearthed biographical documents; in the U.S. I found immigration and naturalization papers, as well as a draft card and a death certificate. This trail of evidence, dispersed across continents, corrected the narrative of this powerful musician’s life. He did not kill his landlord, and he wasn’t offed by a jilted lady friend—those were apocryphal stories created to elevate his musical status and cultural legacy. Zoumbas had entered into the elite mythical realm reserved for more well-known American prewar musicians like the Delta bluesman Skip James and the Appalachian banjoist “Dock” Boggs, majestic artists surrounded by imaginary rows of corpses, stacked like cordwood, coolly dispatched in their dreams and in the stories told about them. Read More »

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His Own Wavelength

August 13, 2014 | by

Talking to Weird Al about his process.

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From the promotional poster for UHF, Al’s 1989 film.

It’s not that there wasn’t a self-referential pop culture before “Weird Al” Yankovic; it’s just that those of us under forty might have a hard time remembering it. Just as difficult to imagine are those who, even after all these years—after all the albums and songs and verses, after all the puns and parodies and poetry—still think of Weird Al as nobody more than that guy who rhymes about food over popular music. Weird Al engages the entire culture, in all its functions and facets, through his lyrics, his videos, his original musical-style parodies. Just how he does it all remains a mystery no matter how often he explains it.

When he explained it to me recently, by Skype, he said much that I’d never heard before, even though, like most culture vultures my age, I’ve followed his career since the early eighties. And if a lot of those early songs did in fact find their rhymes in the names of food, it’s also true that a lot of them did not. His songs have become more intricate with each new album, even as they’ve become more expansive. And more popular, too. It’s easy to forget that Weird Al’s career, after an early but tough start, nearly failed to make it very far out of the eighties. It wasn’t until his parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (“Smells Like Nirvana”) that he safely established full traction and momentum.

That was 1992. Since then, his career has been an inverted, warped variation on the typical pop-music career, just as his songs have always been inverted, warped variations on typical pop music. In 2006, he released his first album ever to break the top ten (Straight Outta Lynwood, featuring “White & Nerdy”). And now, eight years after that, and thirty-five years after his very first single—“My Bologna,” which, yeah, is about food—his new album, Mandatory Fun, has gone number one. It’s not just the first time Weird Al’s done it; it’s the first time any comedian’s done it since Allan Sherman, with My Son, the Nut in 1963. Read More »

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The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine

August 6, 2014 | by

How Korea mints its pop stars.

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From the cover of The Birth of Korean Cool.

Korean pop’s star-making process has suffered slings and arrows from the Western press—some allege that it amounts to modern-day slavery. It’s true that K-pop labels recruit budding stars and bind them to contracts that can last as long as thirteen years. But Korea had no other way of building a pop industry. It had to create it from the ground up.

Most famous rock bands formed independently, without the help of a producer or record label. This was never going to happen in Korea. Kids didn’t have the time to jam with friends. They were studying—all the time—or helping with the family business. Organically formed bands could experiment with new sounds or improvise or goof off, but Koreans had no such luxury. In the unforgiving Confucian culture, a young person who screws up has a hard time getting back on track. Until recently, when K-pop proved profitable, no Korean would have staked his future on music.

Lee Moon-won, a culture critic, said, “Koreans spend the same effort on everything, whether it’s college entrance exams or an office job. Korea stands for hard work.” Accordingly, a conventional K-pop contract lasts seven to thirteen years; half that time is spent training the stars. Shin Hyung-kwan, the general manager of MNET, Korea’s version of MTV, explained, “It takes time to see who has hidden talents. It’s one thing to pick some person and say you’re going to make them a star, but you have to see if they get along with each other and in society at large. If you are not careful, the whole thing can be spoiled. Westerners do not understand. The performers could get into an accident, some kind of trouble.” Read More »

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Islands in the Stream

July 14, 2014 | by

The elephant in the discotheque: the Bee Gees.

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A 1977 publicity photo of the Bee Gees for a television special, “Billboard #1 Music Awards.” From top: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.

The Bee Gees’ dominance of the charts in the disco era was above and beyond Chic, Giorgio Moroder, even Donna Summer. Their sound track to Saturday Night Fever sold thirty million copies. They were responsible for writing and producing eight of 1978’s number ones, something only Lennon and McCartney in 1963/64 could rival—and John and Paul hadn’t been the producers, only the writers. Even given the task of writing a song called “Grease” (“Grease is the word, it’s got groove, it’s got a meaning,” they claimed, hoping no one would ask, “Come again?”), they came up with a classic. At one point in March they were behind five singles in the American Top 10. In 1978 they accounted for 2 percent of the entire record industry’s profits. The Bee Gees were a cultural phenomenon.

Three siblings from an isolated, slightly sinister island off the coast of northwest England, already in their late twenties by the time the Fever struck—how the hell did they manage this? Pinups in the late sixties, makers of the occasional keening ballad hit in the early seventies, the Bee Gees had no real contact with the zeitgeist until, inexplicably, they had hits like “Nights on Broadway,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and the zeitgeist suddenly seemed to emanate from them. This happened because they were blending white soul, R&B, and dance music in a way that suited pretty much every club, every radio station, every American citizen in 1978. They melded black and white influences into a more satisfying whole than anyone since Elvis. Simply, they were defining pop culture in 1978.

Like ABBA, there is a well of melancholic emotion, even paranoia, in the Bee Gees’ music. Take “How Deep Is Your Love” (no. 1, ’77), with its warm bath of Fender Rhodes keyboards and echoed harmonies that camouflage the cries of the lyric: “We’re living in a world of fools, breaking us down, when they all should let us be … How deep is your love? I really need to learn.” Or “Words,” with its romantic but strangely seclusionist “This world has lost its glory. Let’s start a brand-new story now, my love.” Or “Night Fever,” their ’78 number one, with its super-mellow groove and air-pumped strings masking the high anxiety of Barry Gibb’s vocal; the second verse is indecipherable, nothing but a piercing wail with the odd phrase—“I can’t hide!”—peeking through the cracks. It is an extraordinary record.

Total pop domination can have fierce consequences. Elvis had been packed off to the army; the Beatles had received Ku Klux Klan death threats—the Bee Gees received the mother of all backlashes, taking the full brunt of the anti-disco movement. Radio stations announced “Bee Gee–free weekends”; a comedy record called “Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices” by the HeeBeeGeeBees became a UK radio hit. Their 1979 album Spirits Having Flown had sold sixteen million copies and spawned three number-one singles (“Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out”); the singles from 1981’s Living Eyes—“He’s a Liar” and the title track—reached thirty and forty-five on the chart respectively, and didn’t chart in Britain at all. Almost overnight, nobody played Bee Gees records on the radio, and pretty much nobody bought them. The biggest group in the world at the end of 1978 went into enforced retirement three years later. Could they rise again? Of course they could. Read More »

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Highs in the Mideighties

June 25, 2014 | by

Recalling the heyday of Prince and Madonna on the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain.

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Twenty-four-hour music television, the brainchild of a TV-spawned pop star, the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, began broadcasting in August 1981 with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” MTV was everywhere within eighteen months. If new pop and postpunk had gleefully and rapidly rewritten rules, taking music forward in a constant revolution of purpose and invention, their aftermath was an era of momentum for its own sake. Things got ever shinier, greed and need replaced innovation: conservatism was a force and a problem both outside and within eighties pop.

Two new names appeared in this froth of newness. Both stood out from the crowd, both clearly demanded attention, worship, devotion: Prince and Madonna. These were names that couldn’t have existed at the dawn of modern pop, names that baited royalty and religion.

Both based their sound on electronically processed dance music, allowing them the opportunity to change style from record to record in a way that seemed innovative, one step ahead of the pack, like Dylan or Bowie before them. Both had egos the size of mansions. Both had a new hunger for success, for money. Both used MTV to become stars, and both used movies (Desperately Seeking Susan, Purple Rain) to make the jump from stardom to superstardom. Sex! Religion! Gigolo! Whore! Purple! Cone bra! No one could accuse Prince or Madonna of underplaying their hands. And, eventually, both challenged Michael Jackson’s place at the very top of the pop empire; by the eighties’ end Madonna had (arguably) toppled him in the popularity stakes, and Prince had (certainly) creatively eased past Jackson with the most streamlined, silver-finned R&B of the decade. These were their similarities. In other respects they were quite different.

Prince had first appeared with the itchy falsetto disco of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (no. 11, ’79) and was presented—not least by himself—as a teenage prodigy. He grew up in the largely white city of Minneapolis: “The radio was dead, the discos was dead, the ladies was kind of dead. If I wanted to make some noise, if I wanted to turn anything out, I was gonna have to get something together. Which was what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown.”

He wanted to be everybody’s lover and—unlike most disco acts—was quite at home with lyrics about oral sex, incest, and Dorothy Parker. This set him apart. By 1983 he was channeling Sly Stone and the Beach Boys on “Little Red Corvette,” and a year later Newsweek was calling him “the Prince of Hollywood” as Purple Rain—starring Prince as the Kid—grossed $80 million. Read More »

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