Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock
[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann
It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.
Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.
I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.
What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly? He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.
It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.
Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.
That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.
Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.
Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he Continue reading →
Two-hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire. Widowed at age thirty-four and with five children to support, she turned to writing and editing. In addition to helping make education fashionable for women and campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, she is credited with penning “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a rhyme inspired by a neighbor child, Mary Sawyer.
In celebration, here’s a sampler of varied takes on this funny little verse.
Scroll down and enjoy!
Otis Redding’s Version
Tommy Dorsey’s Version
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Version
Sesame Street’s Comedy Sketch Version
Thomas Edison’s Version
UB Iwerks ComiColor’s Version
The Native American Church Version
Fletcher Henderson’s Version
The Paul McCartney and Wings’ Version
The Break Room Conversation Version
The Dolly’s Circus Version
The Evil Version
The Southern Gospel Version
The Hanna Barbera Singers 1966 Version
The American Sign Language Version
Happy Birthday, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. Rest assured the beat goes on!
My grandma, Louise, babysat for Lawrence Welk‘s kids when she was a girl. She lived across from Elitch Gardens, where my great-grandmother ran the roller coaster and my great-grandpa worked in the greenhouses. Growing up, we often watched the Lawrence Welk show with grandma.
I remember laughing a lot at the show–for both the intentional humor and the unintentional. Welk’s persona and corny jokes always made grandma laugh. Such as:
How many of Lawrence Welk’s critics does it take to change a light bulb?
– They don’t know how to change a light bulb, but they’ll find something wrong with how his Musical Family does it
Welk continues to maintain popularity, and his fan pages are examples of humorous web design in themselves. The music and costumes were often hilarious, often unintentionally so.
Which leads to some obvious and welcome parody:
Feel free to post your own Welk pieces and humor.
The Beatles were a real good thing for music, because they were funny at the same time – Randy Newman
A hard and rough port town, which offered many dead-ends and few opportunities for upward mobility, Liverpool had humor as the balm that could ease the often crushing burden of reality that was its daily milieu.
Its locals were, and are, famous for their Scouser wit – often delivered in deadpan style; it is sharp and often biting. Verbal jousting is an art form, and generally good-natured. On its dark side, Scouser wit can be a weapon intended to do damage. An overwhelmingly Irish town in the middle of the last century, the locals had some ancestral history with humor.
Even their name for themselves – Liverpudlians – is the Scouser’s inverted joke in which the pool becomes a puddle.
Why does the River Mersey run through Liverpool? Because it doesn’t want to get mugged.
In this puddle fermented with wit, where one was required to have a sharp sense of humor and judged by its quality, were born the Beatles – as individuals and a band. And like the thematic spine that runs through any good story, Scouser wit was the spine of their career – it affected every aspect of their existence as a band, to the point of being responsible for their initial success until their songwriting caught up.
John Lennon’s humor was often underpinned by the dark nature that was part of his personality. Separated from his father, left to live with his aunt by his mother, who subsequently died in a tragic accident, left by the beloved uncle who died unexpectedly, he used humor to cover the pain of abandonment by those he loved. He used it to turn his inner rage on an outside world he felt had betrayed him. Early in school that humor took increasingly sharp turns towards the surreal, and often cruel, in poems, stories, and illustrated magazines he created to communicate with the world outside.
Tragedy struck Paul McCartney as well when he lost his mother in his early teens. Always a people pleaser on the surface, his sense of humor could also be sharp and biting, but was more often obscured under layers of protection. He also came from a large, boisterous, and close knit extended family in which humor, good-natured for the most part, was the currency of affection.
Like his older friend, George Harrison came from a family that was affectionate, loud and immersed in jokes and cut-ups. Falsely referred to as the quiet Beatle, he was a talker, and his wit took a dry, sarcastic tone.
The Reeperbahn, the seedy red-light district of Hamburg where the Beatles had several lengthy stays playing at loud and often dangerous clubs, backing strippers or playing between their sets, was the anvil on which the band was hammered into what was arguably the best live band of Northern England at the time. The lubricant that greased their way through this maze of dangers and endurance was humor.
John, Paul and George quickly found their shared sense of humor helped the intense bond they shared grow. They riffed off of each other like veteran comedians, often finishing each other’s jokes and jabs. Entertaining the jaded and uninterested thugs and blue-collar workers that came to drink at the Kaiserkeller, The Top Ten Club and Star Club, took more than music – it took jokes. Lennon trotted out his well-worn cripple routine, or ridiculed the crowd with Nazi jokes and Hitler imitations. Once amphetamines entered their world, the jokes took on a manic persona and wearing a toilet seat around your head while playing in your underwear was just another tool in their entertainment chest.
It was those personalities, imbued with their unique bond and sense of comic surreality that helped Brian Epstein see their potential. But pushing them on every record label in England came to nothing for the aspiring manager with the passionate belief in his charges. His last hope was George Martin, who headed the poor relative record label Parlophone.
Martin first had success with Beyond the Fringe, a comedic stage review featuring Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller. Those records are considered a key linchpin in the ascendance of satiric humor in Britain.
Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album – Tempest
– was released on Tuesday, smack dab in the middle of a stormy political season. But it isn’t a political album, of course. Bob Dylan is not a political artist. He is a bluesman, borrowing what he needs from an array of elements and spinning them into songs that transcend the original source, resulting in some of the more poignant, introspective songs of the modern age. In the late 1960’s, for example, during the height of the Woodstock-era, rock ‘n’ roll, anti-war counter-culture, Bob Dylan was making quiet country records in Nashville. In fact, Bob Dylan has written precisely zero songs protesting, or even referencing, the Vietnam War. His brush with “protest” music at the beginning of his career was simply a vehicle – one more riff to borrow as he found his voice. Dave Van Ronk, the legendary folk singer who worked the same Greenwich Village clubs in those early days, remembers Dylan as being “politically naïve.”
He can also be a very funny songwriter and entertainer – a self described “song and dance man.”
Don’t misunderstand me, I am well aware of the impact of landmark songs such as Continue reading →
I’ve often thought that if blues musicians would just sleep in they would be happier. So many blues songs begin with “I woke up this morning…” only to be followed by a litany of frustrating events. Of course, to be a blues musician one must have the blues and to have the blues I suppose one must get out of bed and face the world. Might as well get an early start. Unhappiness as a raison d’être may seem like an unhealthy exercise until considering the cathartic power of music. Perhaps blues musicians are on to something.
Music, like humor, can be used to varying degrees for varying effects. Some music is strictly utilitarian, designed purely as a backdrop to dance, or even march. Similarly, humor at its most basic level can be mere entertainment and nothing more. This is a noble purpose in and of itself; however, humor and music each have a transformative element that when harnessed properly can heal. When the two are combined effectively this power can be immense. This is true for every genre and period of music – from the “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” to Cee Lo Green’s “F**k You” – but is perhaps most effective in the blues and its logical extensions: country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.
This is because humor and the blues share similar expressive properties. Continue reading →
The holiday season is, of course, upon us. A time when brothers and sisters come together to divvy up the sober driver duties for their many mandatory family parties. (You and your loved ones may have other traditions.) A time when the unlikeliest of music becomes unavoidable. No, I am not talking about Susan Boyle’s inspirational (?) versions of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on her Christmas album The Gift. (Although she should have called it The Re-Gift, because let’s be honest…)
I am thinking instead of the perennial “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” As I’m sure that you, too, have felt with a kind of shiver completely unrelated to winter weather, the lyrics to this holiday favorite make Santa seem almost tyrannical in his tireless vigilance. “You better watch out,” it begins. But for what?! At least the next lines – “You better not pout / You better not cry” – offer a very specific rebuke to whiners and brats, but the fact that Santa is not something to eagerly await and watch for but to “what out for” makes him less a benefactor than a dictator. Less Tomie dePaola, more Brian De Palma. I guess the implication is that you better watch out for Santa watching you, at which point we may as well be in a Pynchon novel or a Police song.
In other words, Santa is like a heftier, jollier version of a spy drone. He flies around in his sleigh undetected – um, we’ve even got NORAD working on it – and although you never see him, he sees you when you’re both sleeping and awake (i.e. always) and knows when you’ve been both bad and good (i.e. everything). In this light, getting a wood-burning kit or a Kindle Fire hardly seems to make up for another year’s worth of despotic surveillance, to say nothing of the attendant paranoia that this song all but recommends.
I’m not the first to make this connection between Santa and a spy drone, however, as the following recent cartoons attest:
Also, did you know that there’s a war on?