Tag Archives: Surf Music

009. The Cramps – Stay Sick!

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Six years ago today, Lux Interior, the legendary lead singer of The Cramps, cast off this mortal coil.  In commemoration, Retro in the 90s will review a different Cramps album from the 1990s for each of the next four years.

But, first a little background.

In the spring of 1976, The Cramps began to fester in an NYC apartment.  Without fresh air or natural light, the group developed its uniquely mutant strain of rock n’ roll aided only by the sickly, blue rays of late night TV.  While the jackhammer rhythms of punk were proliferating in NYC, The Cramps dove into the deepest recesses of the rock n’ roll psyche for the most primal of all rhythmic impulses – Rockabilly – the sound of southern culture falling apart in a blaze of shudders and hiccups.

As late night sci-fi reruns coloured the room, The Cramps also picked and chose amongst the psychotic debris of previous rock eras – instrumental rock, surf, psychedelia and sixties punk.  And then they added the junkiest element of all – themselves.  Nick Knox, stoic drummer with the history of the big beat written in his left hand.  Ivy Rorschach, voodoo guitarist with the rhythm method down as pat as her blonde beauty.  Bryan Gregory, flipping cigs and fractured with Vincent Price and decent folks ask, “What hath God wrought?”

The Cramps don’t pummel and you won’t pogo.  They ooze and you’ll throb.

Dr. J. H. Sasfy, Professor of Rockology
American Rock n’ Roll Institute, Washington D.C., USA

One of the more interesting facets of the 1990s retro boom was the presence of so many different potential gateways leading Gen X youths to discover the recent past.  However, for individuals immersed in the punk rock, hardcore or skateboard subcultures of the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Cramps were a very common portal.  A recurring theme of all things retro in the 90s was “initiation through ironic distance”.  Although we loved their music dearly and took it seriously, the antiquated slang and B-movie aesthetic often produced reactions ranging from strange intrigue to debilitating laughter.  Of course, that was all part of their unique charm, and The Cramps never came across as ironic or corny.  Of questionable sanity?  Quite possibly.  Demented?  Sure.  Perverted?  Most definitely.  Yet, generally they projected a calculatedly menacing aura.  They looked, talked and moved like a hot rod gang who would have served as the antagonists to Steve McQueen or James Dean in numerous golden age exploitation films.  Sure they were smart, funny and charismatic, but you just knew they were all carrying switchblades and lots and lots of pills.

While chart topping mainstream success on the level of Whitney Houston may have eluded them, The Cramps were a very important part of 1990s retro.  Maybe they didn’t spend as much time on MTV or the cover of SPIN as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, but they did wind up on a very special Halloween episode of the most conspicuously 90s of all television shows, Beverly Hills, 90210 (unfortunately, I could only find a clip with French over dubs).  That was certainly more than one could say for Pearl Jam.  Those Chuck Taylor-wearin’ low- self-esteemers couldn’t even stop moping long enough to bother with dating Shannen Doherty.  Chalk another one up for The Cramps.

Let it be known, that in 1990 The Cramps sired a psychobilly magnum opus titled Stay Sick!  This title is a tribute to the legendary, undead, beatnik, horror host Ghoulardi, who would routinely sign off from Cleveland’s Shock Theatre in the early 1960s by imploring his audience to, “Stay sick.”  Lux Interior was a native son of Akron, Ohio and well within the broadcast range of WJW-TV, Channel 8.  Thus, Ghoulardi’s shtick, as well as the B-movies regularly featured on Shock Theatre, had a profound impact on not only The Cramps choice of subject matter, but also their stage personae.  This, right here, is one of the many things I absolutely love about The Cramps.  We’re not even past the title and I’ve already explained Ghoulardi.

As for the musical style of Stay Sick!, the song structures, rhythms and melodies  used classic rock and roll and rockabilly as a foundation, yet the execution gave an obvious nod to the ethos, attitude and general bombast of punk rock.  Poison Ivy’s twangy guitar riffs and leads were reminiscent of Duane Eddy, Hasil Adkins and Link Wray.  Drummer Nick Knox laid down steady and simple beats that would have sounded perfectly at home in the catalog of Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper.  Unlike the vast majority of psychobilly bass players, Candy Del Mar eschewed the upright bass for an electric Höfner Artist model.  Though purists may have blanched, the crystal clear tone allowed her crawling bass-lines to effortlessly carry each song.  Of course, Lux Interior’s hilariously clever lyrics and larger-than-life delivery were the icing on the cake.  Instead of opting for lo-fi engineering, the album was recorded with the standard technology available at the time, which made for a clean and modern sounding record without sacrificing any savage vitality.  The twelve tracks of raucous retro revival were as follows;

  1. “Bop Pills”
  2. “God Damn Rock & Roll”
  3. “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”
  4. “All Women Are Bad”
  5. “The Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon”
  6. “Shortnin’ Bread”
  7. “Daisys Up Your Butterfly”
  8. “Everything Goes”
  9. “Journey to the Center of a Girl”
  10. “Mama Oo Pow Pow”
  11. “Saddle Up a Buzz Buzz”
  12. “Muleskinner Blues”

Stay Sick! opened with “Bop Pills”, a rambunctious rock n’ roll number originally written and recorded by Macy Skipper, an obscure rockabilly singer, whose claim to fame was recording some demos in the mid 1950’s for Memphis, Tennessee’s legendary Sun Studio.  Allegedly, “Bop Pills” referenced the widespread amphetamine consumption amongst early fans of rockabilly, rock and roll and long haul truckers.  I’m not sure whether rockabilly’s institutionalized tradition of covering older and very obscure blues/country/rock and roll artists originated with The Cramps, or if they simply perfected the art.  Regardless, after hearing a new Cramps album, the listener would be exposed to a handful of great old music to which they otherwise never would have heard.  An argument could easily be made that as a band, this was The Cramps’ greatest achievement.

“God Damn Rock & Roll” gave Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band’s 1978 hit “Old Time Rock & Roll” the metaphorical and philosophical beat down it so richly deserved.  While not quite parody, The Cramps used Seger’s hit as a reference point, stripped it down to its frame, completely rebuilt it, and carried it through to the logical point of absurdity.  “God Damn Rock & Roll” sounded simultaneously more old-timey, primal and threatening.  Obviously, The Cramps loved old time rock and roll as passionately and deeply as anyone.  They just took a much more intense and badass approach to it.  God bless, ‘em.

The most well-known track from Stay Sick!, if not the entire Cramps’ discography, was “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”, which hit #35 on the UK Top 40 chart.  This wasn’t so much a song as it was a mid-century B-movie gone sonic.  The Cramps laid down some righteous rockabilly riffage while channeling liquor and drug fueled drag races, beach movies, and the films of Russ Meyer.  The video featured the band performing the song, interspersed with shots of gorgeous guitarist Poison Ivy go-go dancing dressed in her trademark pin-up girl finery amid a sea of vintage neon signage.  Nick Knox stoically laid down the beat and Candy Del Mar played her swingin’ bass-lines while simultaneously chomping bubble gum like a juvenile delinquent straight out of an Ed Wood movie.  Lux Interior sang the track with a joyous sincerity that channeled some bizarre hybrid of Elvis Presley and Frankenstein’s monster.  Needless to say, when compared to the cheesy, overproduced R&B of Boyz II Men or the pretentious socially-conscious status-whoring of R.E.M. that was popular at the time, “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” stood in stark contrast both aurally and visually.  The retro-pulp shock and awe invited the listener back to a time when rock and roll was a lot more dangerous and a hell of a lot more fun.

“All Women Are Bad” was a tongue-in-cheek misogynistic ode to original sin, beginning with Adam and Eve, continuing on to Sampson and Delilah, and ending in a fit of shudders and hiccups.  “They’ve got groovy wiggly tails and horns on their heads, all women are bad.”  Indeed.  In a sane and just world “The Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon” would be the official go-to Halloween FM radio staple instead of Michael Jackon’s “Thriller”.  Lux Interior name checks the eponymous Universal Studios Gill-Man, It Came from Outer Space (1953), James Dean’s infamous chicken run from “Rebel Without a Cause”, and even …..Satan.   As fate would have it, the video was banned from MTV, I suspect by whomever it is that lobbies on behalf of playground equipment manufacturers.

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Somehow, The Cramps managed to transition seamlessly into a stompin’and barnburnin’ rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread”, a folk song dating back to 1900.  Now THAT’S retro.  While treated with all due respect, the vocals were performed with such over-the-top monstrous bravado that one just couldn’t help but smile.  “Daisys Up Your Butterfly” was a mid-tempo, blues-derived tune brandishing some of Lux Interior’s finest poetic grandiloquence.  “Now you might believe the world is sweet and fine and sugar candy.  But, I, myself, believe in whatever comes in handy.  Now you’re whistling past the graveyard, hoping for the best.  But a humjob at the K-Mart just might wreck that party dress.”  The Bard himself would be envious of such silver-tongued humor.  “Everything Goes” moved the album into an even more blues-laden direction, while clearly staying within the confines of rockabilly proper.  In the aforementioned sane and just world, “Everything Goes” would be a staple in every strip club juke box.  “No holes barred, watch your toes.  Look out, baby… everything goes.  You got your g-strings and gin and nylon hose, chicken pot pie… everything goes!”

The next two songs were even more overtly sexual and pleasantly sleazy, while staying within the bounds of (semi) good taste and early 1960s movie rating codes.  “Journey to the Center of a Girl” combines references to science fiction gems such as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and She Beast (1966) with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88”.  There were even a few subliminal backwards messages thrown in for good measure.  “Mama oo Pow Pow” inverted the second half of The Trashmen’s 1963 classic “Surfin’ Bird”, and created an epic tribute to the Bettie Page style of “cheesecake” and bondage girly magazines which had a substantial underground following in the latter half of the 1950s.  Once again, Lux Interior is in rare form, “I don’t wanna be your dear sweet friend.  I just wanna beat your little pink rear end.”

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“Saddle Up a Buzz Buzz” was the last original track on “Stay Sick!”, and it was a beautiful conglomeration of everything that made the entire album great.  Obscure historical references, deviant sex, B-movies, Tarzan, Corvette Stingrays, Rat Fink and surfing were all combined into an ultra-potent cocktail of awesome.  In the opinion of your humble narrator, some of Poison Ivy’s best guitar work is found on this track.  The album ended with a positively ass-kickin’ cover of Jimmie Rodgers’s bluegrass classic “Mule Skinner Blues”.  It was almost too loud, too harsh and too chock full of hillbilly swagger to be contained by the fragile vinyl grooves of a mere record album, yet verily it was.

One of the best things about The Cramps was their de facto historical approach to rock and roll.  Instead of being concerned with the “Next Big Thing”, The Cramps’ time-preference was almost on a “geologic” scale.  When the average Gen-Xer got to the end of Stay Sick!, he was suddenly aware that he had missed an incredible and very substantial portion of the history of rock and roll.  There were amazing things to seek out and forgotten secrets just waiting to be rediscovered.  Every quest for such knowledge begins with the sudden realization of what one does not know.  To paraphrase the venerable philosopher SO-crates, “To know, is to know that you know nothing.  That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

On that distinctly profound note, we’ll let the cosmic wisdom of Lux Interior speak for itself.

Remember this!  Everything that you have ever experienced in your entire life has brought you to this instant.  All things now are possible in the limitless void of counter-actuality!  All things, too, that are knowable will be realized in this new dimension of BIKINI GIRLS WITH MACHINE GUNS!

Rest in peace, Lux Interior.  You are missed.

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008. The Reverend Horton Heat – Liquor In The Front

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Elvis Costello once said that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s really a stupid thing to want to do.”  Yet, somehow music journalists have always found the wherewithal to scrawl volumes of Tolstoy-length pieces on almost anyone with a microphone or guitar.  Thus, it absolutely boggled my mind that so little had been written about rockabilly virtuoso James “The Reverend Horton Heat” Heath and his merry men.  You, dear reader, know darned well that I enjoy doing my homework and digging deep into the subject matter behind each post.  How else can one wring meaning from a topic like blood from a stone?  This due diligence not only reflects my commitment to intellectual honesty, but often leads to the blogger’s delight of the posts virtually writing themselves.  Thus, I was confused, befuddled and kind of appalled to see that no one had given The Reverend Horton Heat’s 1994 masterpiece, Liquor in the Front, sufficient consideration, much less a proper analysis.  Even the All Music Guide’s snippet of an entry led me to believe that their reviewer just didn’t get it.

Needless to say, this post certainly did not write itself, and I was forced to utilize the Charles Bukowski method of getting drunk and listening to the album whilst writing.  Fortunately, this technique cured my writer’s block, and all things considered, I’ve certainly had worse evenings.  Regardless, the criminal under-appreciation of Liquor In The Front and dearth of thoughtful examination seemed even more egregious due to the weighty amount of personal significance that I placed on this album.  Yes, this was personal.  For The Reverend Horton Heat’s Liquor in the Front was the first album that metaphorically grabbed me by the lapels and hollered in my face, its’ breath pungent with the juniper-and-lime-infused stench of one thousand gin and tonics, “YOU HAVE MISSED AN INCREDIBLE AND VERY SUBSTANTIAL PORTION OF THE HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL!  REPENT, MOTHER****ER, FOR THE END IS NIGH!”

  1. “Big Sky”
  2. “Baddest of the Bad”
  3. “One Time for Me”
  4. “Five-O Ford”
  5. “In Your Wildest Dreams”
  6. “Yeah, Right”
  7. “Crusin’ for a Bruisin'”
  8. “I Could Get Used to It”
  9. “Liquor, Beer & Wine”
  10. “I Can’t Surf”
  11. “Jezebel”
  12. “Rockin’ Dog”
  13. “The Entertainer”

Liquor In The Front (surreptitiously subtitled… Poker In The Rear) was jointly released by both Sub Pop and Interscope Records, as the band was transitioning between contracts and labels.  This was a very interesting juxtaposition, as Sub Pop was an independent label verging on major label status, and Interscope (which I covered earlier with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) was a major label posing as an independent.  In the early 90s, Seattle-based Sub Pop was known as THE grunge label, having signed and introduced the world to the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, long before they were considered cool.  Sub Pop also released the first two Reverend Horton Heat albums, Smoke ’em If You Got ’em and The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat in 1990 and 1993, respectively.  Interscope heard something they liked, and added The Reverend Horton Heat to their ample stable of potential next big things. 

The sudden injection of major label dollars to the album enabled both prettier production and packaging than the Rev’s previous projects, which was entirely expected from any de facto major label debut.  The production was handled by Al Jourgensen of Ministry fame.  Prior to Liquor In The Front, modern rockabilly, psychobilly and surf rock albums were intentionally lo-fi, either due to budget constraints or an artistic decision to pay homage to the recording technology of earlier decades.  Jourgensen was renowned for pioneering what at the time were considered avant-garde and cutting edge engineering techniques used mostly, if not only, within the industrial genre.  However, rather than trying to make Liquor In The Front sound like The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, Jourgensen simply produced a fantastic sounding album, by bringing Jim Heath’s raging Gretsch guitar front and center, and then surrounding it with crystal clear drums and bright upright bass.  If one concentrated, one could hear every note played by each musician on every song.  This is one of the primary reasons why Liquor In The Front appealed to fans of alternative rock, grunge, metal and hardcore.  Instead of making the 90s equivalent of an old, worn out, scratchy LP, he made one that sounded every bit as good and clear as any other record of the era.

Liquor In The Front started off with what in my opinion was the greatest opening one-two punch in the history rock and roll; “Big Sky” and “Baddest of the Bad”.  One could easily argue that they were one epic song, with “Big Sky” serving as an extended introduction then transitioning seamlessly into “Baddest of the Bad”.  (To lend further credence to this assertion, the band always played both songs back to back during live sets.)  Musically, “Big Sky” was a western-tinged psychobilly instrumental played with the velocity, intensity and technical proficiency of speed metal.  The minor-chord progressions and riffs were similar to those found in western swing and countless spaghetti western soundtracks, complete with copious reverb twang.  Somehow the songs managed to incorporate metallic double kick drum, blast beats and blistering guitar solos without losing even a hint of that cowboy/greaser aesthetic.  While Elvis Costello was right, and it’s exceedingly difficult… and stupid… to even attempt to describe the feelings music elicits, I’m too dumb to know when I’m beaten.  Thus, “Big Sky” evoked emotions associated with magnificent multicolored sunsets over desert canyons, herds of wild mustangs running at top speed whilst kicking up clouds of dust, mysterious and tragically beautiful women whom you’ll never even know, and moments in time that are gone forever.  Whether or not you believed in Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, “Big Sky” seemed to capture the archetypal sense of regret found in the dark recesses of the American psyche.  “Have we strayed too far from our roots?  Have we lost something vital?  Is it too late to get it back?  Such is the fundamental essence of the siren call of all things retro.  Oh, and you could totally mosh to it.  “Baddest of the Bad” carried on with the basic sonic structure laid down by “Big Sky”, only altering itself slightly to accommodate the Reverend’s lyrics about love gone rotten.  At first listen, it seemed impossible to believe that something so melancholy could kick so much ass?  Yet, verily, it did.

“One Time For Me” started off moody, slow and sexy, thus providing the perfect background to the Rev’s lyrical plea for some special girl to do something especially naughty.  The song’s momentum built and eventually climaxed at punk rock warp speed.  Unfortunately, “One Time For Me” was only released as a CD single in Australia.  As for the reason, I can only surmise that the bastard public had better taste down under?  “5.0 Ford” was crafted around a riff that sounded like “Hot Rod Lincoln” on a heavy dose of steroids and amphetamines.  The lyrical content revolved around the most conspicuously rockabilly of all topics; drag racing one’s hot rod.

At this point, Liquor In The Front downshifted dramatically with the exotic and lounge-worthy “In Your Wildest Dreams”.  The right Reverend’s romantic crooning along with the bossa nova rhythm would not have been out of place on a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra record.  A recurring theme of all things retro in the 90s was “initiation through ironic distance”, and this song was a perfect example.  At the time I first heard this album, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to jazz, Latin or otherwise, but eventually I became acclimated to the intentionally schmaltzy “In Your Wildest Dreams”.  After I stopped chuckling, sat down and listened, it wasn’t long before I was buying up Ultra-Lounge compilations like there was no tomorrow.

“Yeah, Right” upshifted into sludgy, mid-tempo I-IV-V blues progression backed by a hybrid industrial/surf beat and lyrics about a wannabe model who done the Reverend wrong.  In all fairness, “Yeah, Right”, with its slightly distorted vocals and mechanical drum sound was the only track on Liquor In The Front bearing any of the hallmarks of producer Al Jourgensen’s beloved industrial genre.  Regardless, no one would have ever mistaken it for a Nine Inch Nails outtake.

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“Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’” shifted the album back into high gear, with a psychobilly barn burner which centered around defending one’s girl, car and guitar in no particular order.  Lyrically, in an era that was renowned for alt rock wimps, it was refreshing to hear a band other than Pantera threaten to kick someone’s ass.  “I Could Get Used To It” was a very traditional and raucous rockabilly tune about a fine, fine woman.  “Just one taste and that’s all it took.  I’m like a big bass on your fishin’ hook.”  It should go without saying that popular grunge bands of the early 90s like Alice In Chains didn’t make many bass fishing references.

The album switched gears yet again, with the unapologetically country “Liquor, Beer & Wine”.  Much like the lounge-influenced “In Your Wildest Dreams”, “Liquor, Beer & Wine” again strategically implemented “initiation through ironic distance”.  At the time I first heard this album, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to country or western, but there was no turning back after being confronted with sheer brilliance such as this, “The doctor says I’m livin’ on precious borrowed time, with all the time I’m givin’ to liquor, beer and wine.  The x-rays of my liver look like molded old Swiss cheese, my heart pumps blood and alcohol through hardened arteries.”  Soundgarden only dreamt of such eloquence.  After I stopped laughing, sat down and listened, it wasn’t long before I started checking out all those old Johnny Cash albums that my Grammy always insisted I’d like.

Aside from a couple of chanted gang choruses, “I Can’t Surf” was an instrumental tour de force of everything that was wonderful about surf rock; speed, intensity, minor key riffs, crawling bass lines, middle-eastern-sounding scales, and reverb galore.  I hadn’t been so floored by a guitar solo since the first time I heard “Battery” off of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.  Aside from the virtuosity, “I Can’t Surf” was a track that made many an aspiring musician ask themselves, “Where the hell did these guys learn to play like that?!?  What phenomenal influences have I overlooked?  If I really wanted to write a song like that, could I even do it?”  Listening to this track was simultaneously inspiring and humbling.

“Jezebel” was an amped up version of Frankie Laine’s 1951 hit, which had been covered by everyone from Desi Arnaz and The Everly Brothers to Herman’s Hermits and Sade.  The melody, though both moody and vaguely exotic, lent itself readily to the band’s muscular musical style.  Obviously, this was the most authentically retro track on the album, hearkening back to a tale of man’s ruin from the Old Testament.  “Rockin’ Dog” was another traditionally crafted mid-tempo rockabilly tune about the Rev battling his reputation as a womanizer whilst attempting to overcome his date’s last minute resistance.  The entire song is riddled with enough antiquated Happy Days slang and righteous rockabilly guitar work to make both The Fonz and Bill Haley green with envy.  The self-assured and good-natured humor of the song stood in stark contrast to the mopey alternative rock that pervaded the airwaves of the day.  If one lyrically compared The Smashing Pumpkins“Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage” with The Reverend Horton Heat’s “I’ve got to stop sittin’ like a bump on a log, I’ve got a reputation as a rockin’ dog”, it was immediately clear to the listener with which band one would rather split a bar tab.  The album closed with sixty-six seconds of Scott Joplin’s classic piano rag “The Entertainer”, and the band acting like drunken jackasses in the studio.  It was one thing to finish an album with a smile on your face, but quite another to finish an album laughing like an idiot.

In conclusion, The Reverend Horton Heat’s Liquor In The Front purveyed a variety of retro musical styles including rockabilly, country, surf and lounge.  Al Jourgensen’s stellar engineering and production made the album eminently listenable to a generation raised on cassettes and CDs.  These factors combined with the band’s outstanding musicianship and novel sense of humor made for an extremely potent and enjoyable gateway drug.  From that gateway, the listener could travel freely through a virtual universe of previously undiscovered audio retro delights.  Subjectively, one could make an argument that Liquor In The Front may not have been the best neo-rockabilly album of the 90s, or even the best Reverend Horton Heat album of the 90s.  Yet, attempting to quantify such a statement would be “like dancing about architecture”.  I think it’s sufficient to say that in the 90s there were many available gateways into retro forms of music.  But after walking through this particular gateway, I never looked back.

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003. Quentin Tarantino – Pulp Fiction (1994)

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During the course of this blog, I plan on covering over 100 examples of 1990s retro touchpoints.  Some of these are well known, and some are relatively obscure.  Out of all of them, none will hold a stronger claim to being the retro shot heard round the world than Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction.  While other movies became relatively successful despite their mid-century frame, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction literally established retro chic as the dominant paradigm for the rest of the decade.  Pulp Fiction was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  The film quickly influenced all other forms of media, and even Roger Ebert deemed it the most influential film of the decade.

If you’ve never seen Pulp Fiction, get the hell off my blog and don’t come back until you have.  OK, I’ll throw a bone to the unfamiliar.  Pulp Fiction was a crime film with a nonlinear sequence of events that incorporated the humor, graphic violence and the intriguing dialog of pulp magazines and hardboiled detective fiction that were popular in the middle of the 20th century.  Additionally, the picture was highly stylized, reminiscent of film noir, and extensively utilized homage.  This much everyone agreed upon, and little else.  The critical reaction to this film spanned the gamut from accusations of shallow nihilism, racism, homophobia, and glorified violence to claims of transcendentalism, celebrations of multiculturalism, and redemption through honor.  Despite the discordant cacophony of critical theorist circle-jerkery, one thing was certain; Pulp Fiction allowed the critics to engage in psychological projection on a grander and deeper scale than any film that came before or has come since.

I remember seeing this film at the local multiplex with a group of friends in October of 1994.  For the first twenty minutes or so, we were all confused as to whether Pulp Fiction was set in the 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s or the present.  It wasn’t until Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules character referenced A Flock of Seagulls that we concluded it was either the present, or some version of the present in an alternate universe that was much, much cooler than ours.  This is an observation I’ve heard repeatedly over the years.  If I recall correctly, many people experienced the same conundrum with Reservoir Dogs (1992) until realizing that the characters were discussing Madonna.  There were several primary reasons, all of them retro, for the seemingly ambiguous time periods in which Tarantino’s films of the 1990s took place.

One of the things to register immediately with first time viewers of Pulp Fiction is that it doesn’t look like a 1990s movie.  Even when compared to other films that came out in 1994, such as Speed, True Lies or even the “present day” shots in Forest Gump, there is something fundamentally very different about Pulp Fiction.  It all starts with the film stock.

According to Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction was shot “on 50 ASA film stock, which is the slowest stock they make. The reason we use it is that it creates an almost no-grain image, it’s lustrous. It’s the closest thing we have to 50s Technicolor.”

While this point was lost amidst the all existential and sociopolitical posturing of the literati, the fact remains that the director explicitly stated that Pulp Fiction was intentionally shot to look like a film from the 1950s.

Secondly, Tarantino made good use of the many remaining buildings in Los Angeles which were designed in the architectural style of mid-century modern.  Also referred to as “Populuxe”, “Space Age”, “Coffee Shop Modern”, or “Googie”, this type of architecture brought modernism to America’s post-WWII suburbs and incorporated elements such as upswept roofs, large sheet glass windows, boomerang shapes and starbursts.  Pulp Fiction opens with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny having breakfast in a coffee shop clearly displaying the hallmarks of classic mid-century design, such as rock walls, open spaces made possible by post-and-beam construction, and of course large sheet glass windows.  The diner scenes were filmed in the now-demolished Hawthorne Grill, which was originally built in 1956.  Unless one lived in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, it was rare to see still-functional examples of mid-century modern architecture by the1990s, outside of the occasional church or stray ranch house.  Moreover, to those of us from the heartland/flyover, these buildings were what the 1950s looked like.

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The majority of story line deals with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta’s characters, Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega.  From the moment we were introduced to the two of them driving around while discussing the names of various hamburgers in Europe, they looked strangely anachronistic.  Sure, Vincent Vega had a very 90s haircut.  Lots of guys had long hair in the mid-1990s, but it HAD to be all one length as alternative culture had declared all-out war against the mullet and other forces of darkness.  Jules’ Jheri-curled ‘fro and mustache combo, on the other hand, was straight out of the late 1970s.  This brings us to Jules and Vincent’s iconic black and white suits, reminiscent of the Rat Pack or a tuxedo-clad James Bond.  Nobody dressed like that in 1994.  While their suits were well-tailored, the style at the time was derived from baggy Italian designs.  Additionally, men’s suits were often very colorful in the early 1990s, with harvest orange, avocado green and Joker purple readily available off the rack.  Even dress shirts seemed to come in myriad multicolored paisley prints.  (Watch an old episode of Beverly Hills 90210, Married With Children, or Martin for context.)  Not being one to pull punches whilst beating a dead horse, I’ll continue to belabor the point.  The early to middle 1990s were the golden age of well-made wacky ties.  If I recall correctly, by 1995 I’d effortlessly acquired several expensive-looking silk Spider-Man ties, but I had to go to several stores before I could find a plain black tie.  Regardless, Tarantino stated that the black and white suits were homage to French film-noir director Jean-Pierre Melville.  Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace character was the perfect feminine reflection of Jules and Vincent with her throwback white blouse and black Cleopatra haircut.  So much of Pulp Fiction could have been filmed in black and white without losing a shred of ambience.  Whether this was intentional or not, it adds to the retro feel of the film.

Next, we have the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, which was so influential in and of itself, that I debated covering it in an entirely separate post.  Soundtracks were a very big deal in the 1990s, as they filled the pop-cultural void between K-Tel and Now That’s What I Call Music!  Most of these featured currently popular songs from currently popular artists such as the soundtracks for Singles (1992), The Bodyguard (1992), and even So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993).  Others were more conceptual featuring popular artists of one genre covering formerly popular artists of another genre such as The Crow (1994) soundtrack which hit number one on the Billboard charts, or the Judgment Night (1993) soundtrack which forced collaboration between alternative/grunge/metal artists and rappers, often with striking results.  The Pulp Fiction soundtrack, however, was a retro smorgasbord of American surf music, soul and pop, which ended up going double platinum.  The music was very carefully selected, and each track fit the mood of each scene perfectly.  There was only one song by a new band, power-pop/alt-rockers Urge Overkill covering Neil Diamond’s 1967 hit “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon”.  For those of you keeping score at home, that still counts as retro.  Upon further reflection, the official soundtrack lists “If Love is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)” by alt-country singer Mia McKee, but I’ll be damned if I can remember the song appearing in the movie.

From a pop-cultural standpoint in 1994, instrumental music had been dead and gone for decades.  Even for those with some conceptual knowledge of surf music, it was mostly limited to highly vocal bands like The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean.  It is impossible to overstate the impact that Dick Dale’s “Misirlou”, played during the opening credits, had on audience members too young to remember instrumental surf rock, yet old enough to appreciate the shock and awe of his loud, fast, intense and technically proficient style.  It often started with amazement, “This is incredible?”  Followed by curiosity, “Who is this?  I have to find this song!”  Eventually, one felt cheated, “Why have I never heard this before?  Why the hell doesn’t the local oldies station play songs like this?!?”  The exact same reaction happened all over again approximately thirty minutes later when the strains of Link Wray & The Wraymen’s “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades” would set the mood for Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace’s dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s.  Needless to say, both Dale and Wray experienced a huge resurgence in their careers and record sales as a direct result of Pulp Fiction.

In addition to Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, Tarantino introduced an entire generation to;

Furthermore, everyone was familiar with Chuck Berry, Kool & the Gang, Al Green and Dusty Springfield, but only from the same one or two hits that had long since grown stale.  Upon hearing this “new” material, it was as if Tarantino reached out from the screen, slapped the audience across the face and said, “Forget that Celebration and Johnny B. Goode shit!  These guys have HUGE catalogs of fabulous material, and you HAVE to hear them.”  The preceding sentence is much funnier if read with Tarantino’s trademark rapid, high-pitched, slightly lisping voice in mind.

Perhaps the most interesting legacy of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack was the effect it had on local music scenes nationwide.  Back in the 1980s, I remember hearing a music industry insider of some sort discuss The Ramones.  He said that in cities where no Punk Rock or New Wave scene existed, one would suddenly emerge overnight once The Ramones played a show in that town.  The same can be said of surf and rockabilly scenes immediately after Pulp Fiction was released.  (Note: I plan on dedicating many future posts to the 1990s surf music revival, the bands and labels involved.)

And finally we come to the retro pièce de résistance of Pulp Fiction; Jack Rabbit Slim’s.  This is quite simply the most perfect expression of all retro desires ever committed to film, from the Ed Sullivan impersonating maître d’ and the 1950s celebrity wait staff, to the vintage movie posters adorning the walls over the classic automobile tables.  You just felt it from the second Vincent and Mia pulled up in a convertible 1964 Chevy Malibu to the moment the scene faded during the twist contest.  Vincent Vega said it was “a wax museum with a pulse”, but I say this was retro-Valhalla.

pulpfictionjackrabbitslims

If Tarantino toyed with the aforementioned retro themes in the rest of the film, at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, he pretty much beat the audience over the head with them.  Mid-century modern architecture, early 1960s attire, hotrods, rockabilly music, and antiquated dance moves were to be had in spades.  Although not without humor, the sequence was entirely devoid of snark, sarcasm and detached irony, which allowed the audience to enjoy the date and the environment just as much as Vincent and Mia.  Tarantino was clearly an enthusiast, rather than a satirist, as the Jack Rabbit Slim’s sequence played out like an unapologetic celebration of the apex of American civilization.  If such a place actually existed, I and many like-minded individuals surely would have eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner there daily.

The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

A common complaint or observation from critics was that Pulp Fiction was apolitical, but if one spent enough time contemplating the film, that assertion seemed lazy.  While not an overt political statement, there was definitely something different about Quentin Tarantino’s America.  Oddly enough, the only person to even acknowledge this was feminist cultural critic Estella Tincknell.  (Emphasis mine)

She contrasts the soundtrack with that of Forrest Gump, the highest-grossing film of 1994, which also relies on period pop recordings: “The version of ‘the sixties’ offered by Pulp Fiction…is certainly not that of the publicly recognized counter-culture featured in Forrest Gump, but is, rather, a more genuinely marginal form of sub-culture based around a lifestyle—surfing, ‘hanging’—that is resolutely apolitical.”

If I find myself in agreement with a feminist cultural critic about anything, then it must be true.  Regardless, while Pulp Fiction incorporated many cultural elements of the recent past, the film did not acknowledge the dominant counter-cultural paradigms of the late 1960s.  In Tarantino’s alternate universe, the hippies, feminists and pinkos implicitly lost the culture war, and failed to complete their long march through the institutions, which resulted in a much cooler present.  The important point to keep in mind is that every single character in Pulp Fiction is either a career criminal or an enabler.  It made one wonder, if these intelligent, interesting, strong men with their archaic, yet rugged codes of honor are the scum of the earth, what must the good men be like?  If in this world, Vincent, Jules, Butch and Marcellus are the losers, how magnificent must the winners be, ergo those with the will to power who are responsible for maintaining our advanced civilization?  Would such men have allowed political correctness to apply a terminal stranglehold to intellectual discourse?  Would such men tolerate a system where the likes of James Watson, Larry Summers and Jason Richwine lose their jobs for noticing repeating patterns?  Would such men have acquiesced to subsidizing a massive welfare state when we could be planting our flag on Mars?  Would such men be so submissively eager to legalize roughly twelve million third world illegal aliens because their enemies called them names?  If such men ran the media, would they think the single most important issue of our day is endorsing state-sanctioned same-sex marriage?  The answer to each of these questions is a resounding hell no.

One of the most appealing things about retro media is the ability to tap into the more optimistic and hopeful zeitgeist of a superior culture.  The future envisioned through The Jetsons (1962) was a lot more pleasant than the future envisioned so horrifically and realistically through Idiocracy (2006).  Much like that feeling of being cheated by withheld Dick Dale songs, many of us have a much more intense feeling of being cheated out of a shining future filled with jetpacks and space travel for a dystopian implosion filled with the many-splintered ticking time bombs of fiat currency, crushing debt and unsustainable equalitarian pipedreams.  It’s enough to make a righteous man want to strike down upon the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men with great vengeance and furious anger.  Or at least pour another drink.

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