Anyone who doubts that our society is too obsessed with celebrities would have had his mind changed by the January 22 press conference at the Temple Buell in support of VH1. One attendee who shall remain nameless for his own protection called it "bloated" and "overblown," but I disagree. In my opinion, it was much worse than that.
To set up the tale: As of January 1, VH1 and its sister network, MTV, were dropped from numerous cable systems controlled by Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the media mega-conglomerate based in Greenwood Village. The announced reasons for this decision varied. In Grand Junction, for example, local TCI officials claimed that MTV, which had been on cable there since its national debut in August 1981, wasn't family-friendly enough. In the case of VH1, however, TCI execs seemed to believe that viewers simply wouldn't notice the quiet disappearance of the channel, which specializes in middle-of-the-road videos (can you say "Hootie"?) and various music-oriented nostalgia programming (like frequent reruns of vintage American Bandstand episodes). So they replaced VH1 with services they hoped would be more profitable--shopping or pay-per-view channels in some locations, competitors such as the Cartoon Network in others.
Viacom, the corporation that owns VH1 and MTV, didn't take this ignominy quietly. It encouraged local protests, such as the one in Grand Junction that resulted in MTV returning to the system there at mid-month, and bought full-page ads in daily newspapers to criticize VH1's disappearance; the copy in these ads was built around the phrase "Missing in Action." But Viacom's biggest publicity coup was to be the press conference, at which VH1-style artists Don Henley, Jewell and John Mellencamp (joined by Tony Rich, included in all likelihood to imply that VH1's programming is more racially balanced than it actually is) would raise their voices against this tremendous injustice.
Cowed by such a show of pop-star force, TCI promptly backed down, pledging to reinstate MTV and VH1 to pre-January 1 status. But rather than cancel the now-purposeless event, Viacom went ahead with it anyway--and reporters from every television station and major publication in the area showed up to cover it. The area outside the theater was dominated by a promotional balloon inflated by representatives of KRFX-FM/103.5, The Fox, which sponsored the conference, while the lobby, where the famous folks were to speak, featured an elaborate dais, a camera platform, over a hundred folding chairs and several banquet tables laden with sandwiches, finger foods and beverages. Security was heavy throughout the Denver Center for the Performing Arts complex, but there was no trouble, thanks to underlings from VH1 and the Dish Network who gave out hats and other consolation collectibles to average Joes and Janes who weren't granted admission to the address.
Predictably, the famous people were more than half an hour late; then, upon their arrival, they were pigeonholed by Fox jocks Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax, further delaying the proceedings. Henley seemed visibly annoyed by Floorwax's trademark Foster Brooks impression: "You must be a morning guy," he said derisively. For his part, Lewis did his best to quiz Rich even though he seemed to have not a clue who he was. (No wonder: The only way Rich will be heard on the Fox ever again is if he joins Blue Oyster Cult.) A moment later the quartet headed inside, with Henley acting as de facto moderator. He put TCI's change of heart in the most excessive terms possible, asserting that "clearly, the voice of the people matters" and calling TCI's move "a testament to the power of music and the power of democracy." Surprisingly, no one burst out laughing at these claims.
After Henley completed his opening statement, it was obvious that there was nothing left to say, but a few bad-sport journalists decided to dig for a little actual news anyway. After a bit of prodding, both Mellencamp and Henley acknowledged that the entire "controversy" was little more than a power struggle between two big companies. "But that's the way of America," Mellencamp said, apparently under the delusion that he was making a profound revelation. Henley added, "When it comes to music of all types, I think the power is in too few hands." The once and future Eagle was ready with a quip when yours truly asked if trying to save VH1 might seem a little silly by comparison with his campaign to save Walden Woods, a sliver of nature celebrated by author Henry David Thoreau: "It's all civil disobedience to me," he said. But neither he nor his fellow performers would reveal who asked them to attend the press conference, or if anyone paid them to do so. After Mellencamp, who'd been lobbying to end the entire charade since shortly after he'd taken his seat, joked that he'd come at the behest of TCI, a VH1 flack brought the conference to a screeching halt.
The whole thing took about ten minutes--which was about nine-and-a-half minutes more than it deserved. Nonetheless, Denver TV stations spread it all over their evening newscasts, and the Denver Post put a photo of Henley, Mellencamp and Jewell looking impossibly bored on its front page.
Unfortunately, these media organs (with the partial exception of the Rocky Mountain News, which ran a sharp-witted column by business writer Don Knox) failed to hold up either Viacom or the stars to the ridicule they deserved. Then again, why should they? That's my job.
When Backbeat contributor Susan Dunlap first profiled Rorschach Test, then based in Denver, its leader was known as Jimmy Utah. But a lot has changed since that time. For one thing, the combo relocated to the Seattle area shortly after the aforementioned feature ("Test Case," June 2, 1993). There have been numerous personnel changes as well, but today the man in charge remains Utah--or rather James Baker, his given name and the handle he now prefers. Why would he opt for a moniker that simultaneously recalls a defrocked televangelist and George Bush's onetime secretary of state? "That's what I'm known as legally," he explains.
According to Baker, reached in Hollywood just prior to a late January appearance in Denver, legal matters have had everything to do with the failure of his act to land a contract with a major label thus far. The Eleventh, a Rorschach Test disc released by a Seattle indie, DC Records, back in 1994, seized the attention of a choice firm--Island, music-industry home of Denver's Spell--but the company ultimately backed off because of problems at DC. "There were felony charges against DC's owner," Baker notes. "She was this 45-year-old woman who owned several houses in Seattle, and in the basements of these houses, she had a...well, she had a growing operation, if you know what I mean. Basically, we found out that we'd been used in an elaborate money-laundering scheme. But even though she was indicted on felonies, it took us two years to get out of our contract--and by that time, Island had said goodbye."
Things have gone more smoothly for Rorschach Test of late. The band hooked up with producer Neil Kernon, whose resume includes work with Queen, Elton John, Peter Gabriel and Judas Priest, to record a new disc, Unclean, for the outfit's own Semaphore imprint. Better yet, Baker and company have placed two cuts on the upcoming Polygram soundtrack for Black Circle Boys, a film that recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Rorschach Test also appears in the picture, which stars Eric Mabius, who was featured in the cult sensation Welcome to the Doll House, and onetime New Kids on the Block "tough" guy Donny Wahlberg. "The movie's about this innocent kid who gets into a satanic cult," Baker reveals. "In our scene, the cult comes to see their favorite band--us--play in a bar. So we play a song, and at the end of it, Eric jumps on stage and asks if I can help him become a musician. And I say, 'I can give you some advice right now--get the fuck off the stage,' and kick him with my Doc Marten. That starts a brawl between the band and the satanic cult." He acknowledges that "it's not a huge part--but I had to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild to do it."
Baker, who's always been an energetic self-promoter, is confident that the combination of the film appearance and the soundtrack selections will finally win for Rorschach Test an opportunity to sign on the dotted line. "Basically, our attorneys have told us that we have to get a deal," he insists. "It's not even an option anymore."
Here's some info on a noteworthy local release that initially slipped past me (because I lost the first copy that was sent my way): Days of Darkness, by hip-hopper Apostle. At first the disc, produced by Deuce Mob's DJ Fame, struck me as a bit thin; I kept wishing that Apostle's voice were potted higher in the mix. But as the project rolled forward, I found myself impressed by the old-school beats, Apostle's impressive flow and a sense of positivity and camaraderie epitomized by "Higher Ground," in which the star of the show pats the backs of area outfits such as D-Town Brown and Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass. Sometimes the props-giving can get a bit out of hand--the disc opens with two and a half minutes' worth of thank-yous--but the intelligence behind "Militant Messiah," "Spiritual Combat" and other tracks here helps compensate for any slips. As judged by Days, Apostle is in ascension (available in area record stores).
Also on the local recording front are a pair of platters I received shortly after the publication of "Get Local," an article in our January 2 edition in which I cited my ten favorite Colorado recordings of 1996. Had these discs arrived on my desk sooner, I might have expanded the list to twelve.
First up is Science Faire, the latest spinART release by the Apples. The platter collects hard-to-find singles and EPs put out by the combo between 1993 and 1995, and needless to say, it's a staggering hook-o-rama. While I suppose it's theoretically possible that Robert Schneider and his various associates might someday write a tune that's not catchy, cuts like "Tidal Wave," "Haley" and the appropriately tagged "Hypnotic Suggestion" demonstrate conclusively that such a fate has not yet befallen them. Although these players have a relatively low profile by comparison with major-label signees such as Big Head Todd and the Monsters (who can be heard performing selections from their new album, Beautiful World, at 8 a.m. Friday morning, January 31, on KBCO-FM/97.3), they continue to garner national acclaim; for instance, Rolling Stone lauded them for the third time in a recent issue. The reason might have something to do with the average reviewer's fondness for Beatles and Beach Boys references of the sort that Schneider sprinkles over his psychedelic grooves, but there's more to the kudos than that. Simply put, the Apples are nutritious and delicious, and kids like them, too (available in area record stores).
Also deserving of superlatives is the full-length debut by the Hate Fuck Trio, a combo whose growing popularity has forced harried scribes at "family" publications to figure out ways to write about it without using its name. (The results have been more amusing than anything since the rise to relative fame of the Butthole Surfers.) These journalists will undoubtedly be placed in similar situations in the future; after all, the outfit's CD--You Know, For Kids, on Seattle's Shaky Records--is so damnably entertaining that it's only a matter of time before the four Haters conquer the world. Some of the material here--like "Bottle Up"--could be classified as pop punk, but the Trio is far more varied and cheeky than the typical brethren of Green Day. The arrangement of "A Lizard Named Muffy" is a nod to the music-hall era; "Me & Johnny" is a smart-alecky country-and-Western lark; "Boobs a Lot" is a snippet lifted from the Fugs, who wrote it before these guys were born; and "Bob's Lawn Service" (originally performed by, er, Bob's Lawn Service) is half raveup, half Isaac Hayes. As for "Fucked Up Monkeys" (another title that mainstream scribblers spell using dashes), I've played it over and over while writing this, and it still sounds like the best song in the world. Tip for future profilers at daily newspapers: Call them the "Hate Fornication Trio." At least then people would get the idea (available in area record stores).
Speaking of the Hate Fuck Trio, the band is one of four Colorado acts selected to showcase at this year's South by Southwest Music Festival, slated to take place in Austin March 12-16. Also among the invitees are Slim Cessna's Auto Club; Armchair Martian, a northern Colorado outfit lauded in these pages ("The Martian Chronicles," May 16, 1996); and Space Team Electra, whose slot was guaranteed by Westword, a longtime co-sponsor of the fest.
This showing should gratify those local-music buffs who felt that South by Southwest's selection process of a few years back disrespected Coloradans. Landing four bands on the schedule for the second consecutive year is a positive development--and so too is the quality of these groups, all of which feature first-rate artists who deserve a much wider audience. To put it simply, there are no weak links here. Also cheering is the fact that these are all first-time SXSW attendees. Clearly, Colorado is cranking out good bands on a regular basis. Maybe this year, people beyond the state line will start to notice.
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The Czars have always shared a member with Jux County--bassist Chris Pearson. But for the next few months, Pearson won't be the only moonlighter. Andy Monley, Jux County's longtime frontman, has added the Czars to his curriculum vitae; he'll appear with the band at gigs such as a February 27 appearance at the Bluebird and add his trademark guitar to tracks being recorded with producer Bob Ferbrache for inclusion on a new Czars album. As Pearson puts it, "Andy brings the perfect reverb-y weirdness" to the band. By the way, Jux County made the SXSW waiting list--which means that there's a decent chance the combo will be heading to Austin again this year.
No waiting. On Thursday, January 30, Eileen Niehouse, Jean Harrison and Shari Weissman take turns on stage at the Mercury Cafe, and Carolyn's Mother is available for advice at Market 41. On Friday, January 31, the Paul Warburton Quartet, about which you read earlier this month ("Warburton's Piece," January 16), joins Dale Bruning at the Oriental Theater; Morsel snacks at Franklin's; Sponge Kingdom, Zuba and Sherri Jackson perform a More Than Mountains showcase at the Fox Theatre; Albert Griffith and the Gladiators joust at the Boulder Theater, with Roots Revolt; Mass Madness breaks out at Cricket on the Hill, with Big Bad Freakies and Grandma Jukes; Wendy Woo pitches same at Round Midnight; Phantom Freeway leads to Old Chicago in LoDo; the Scofflaws scoff at the law at the Mercury; and New Country Boy begins a two-night run at the High Spot, 3905 S. Santa Fe. On Saturday, February 1, San Francisco's own Big Shirtless Rob slithers at the Snakepit (the group also appears February 2 at the Lion's Lair and February 3 at Soapy Smith's); Plop Squad drops at Seven South, with Pen 15 and Starhustler; Munly makes change at Penny Lane; the Idiots wise up at the 15th Street Tavern, with Sticky 5 Pin; and Jafrika and Open Rangers visit the Bug Theater. On Sunday, February 2, Slackjaw is wired at Soapy Smith's. And on Monday, February 3, Chalk Farm tends the crops at the Fox, with the Wild Colonials. Because in the field of opportunity, it's plowing time again.
Backbeat's e-mail address is Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com