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Ask The A.V. Club: May 4 2007

Support Hyper-Literacy

Okay, so how come there's a discussion over guitar solos and "noodling," but no talk of the overwrought verbosity present in much modern music? Why does Slash get the shaft, while bands like The Decemberists get a free ride? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like the only talent they have is knowing way more words than I do. And just like with virtuoso musicians, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it just seems incredibly self-indulgent at times. Is it because people who write about rock music are (surprise) writers, and therefore may be more tolerant of excessive words than excessive notes?

Stephen Alwon


What does it mean for a band to be "literary"? For instance, from Noel Murray's review of The Crane Wife, "Colin Meloy's hyper-literate whimsy…" Is it use of literary reference? Creation and building of stories and sagas in the songs? In that case, wouldn't, say, Metallica be as "literary" as The Decemberists? Every so often, reviewers use words that I guess are supposed to be understood, but are never explained.

Kyle Oddson


Word-nerd Noel Murray sounds off:

First off, I feel I should reiterate that in the "Are guitar solos lame?" crosstalk, I was the one arguing for them. For some reason, the 200 or so guitar aficionados who called me a wanker in the comment thread missed that point—I'm presuming because they didn't read anything after the title. I've always insisted that there's nothing wrong with a little virtuosity in music, on the instrumental end or on the lyrical end. The urge to show off is at the heart of what it means to be a great performer, and the desire to see someone do something amazing is at the heart of what it means to be a spectator.

Nevertheless, Stephen, you make an interesting point when you say that wordy bands get more respect than noodly bands—though I'm not sure it's entirely true. For all the praise that bands like The Decemberists and The Hold Steady get, there's just as strong a backlash from critics and fans who can't abide excess loquaciousness. (To be fair, those two bands are divisive for their music as much as their words, but in general, when it comes to rock 'n' roll, a lot of critics sympathize with Ian Dury's derisive song, "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards.")

If some critics prize show-offy lyrics over show-offy instrumental passages, it may be because they see lyrics as more integral to what a song is "about" than a solo. But even there, some wordy—even brainy—lyricists don't get much respect from the critical community. Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen? Beloved. Iron Maiden? Not so much. (And to head off the kind of grumbling that the guitar-solo piece raised, I'm not saying this is my opinion. I'm saying this is the opinion.)

Which brings us to the other question. What does "literate" mean, in crit-speak? It's not specifically about literary references, Kyle, though that can be a component. When I use the term, I'm usually trying to describe musicians that put a lot of emphasis on the lyrics, and write more like novelists than pop stars. The specificity of a Joni Mitchell scene-sketch, or the cinematic imagery of Warren Zevon, or the hazy Southern poetry of Lambchop's Kurt Wagner… that's what I'm talking about. Listening to their songs, you sense that they're people who read a lot, and take an interest in art and culture—old and new. They're the kind of people who might read record reviews, in other words. No wonder we critics like them so much.




Radio Is Cleaning Up The Nation

Thanks for this column, it's always been interesting. Having lived in a few different cities in my life, I've noticed that all radio-station IDs seem to be sung by the same chorus of people, and the "call-letters melody" always seems to be the same, at least when it starts with a "W." How did this melody become the standard-bearer?

Eric Fox


Donna Bowman is the standard-bearer for questions like this:

Like so many of our musical questions, the answer is that the melodies aren't always the same—they just sound alike. And the chorus of people isn't always the same—they just sound alike. But two fascinating questions arise: Why do they sound alike, then, and why are they sometimes exactly the same?

As far as I can glean from my Aeron chair, the story begins in Texas. Since the dawn of commercial radio, songs had been used to sell products, and NBC (following the lead of Atlanta's WSB) had used a sequence of three chiming notes struck on a xylophone to provide a sonic identification for its programming. The earliest singing call-letter tunes are traced to KLIF's Bill Meeks, a Dallas musician who wrote jingles and other incidental music for two on-air bands. He broke away from broadcasting in 1951 to form a company called PAMS—Promotion Advertising Merchandising Service. Its pitch was that the ratings system in place for radio didn't tell the whole story. Advertisers got good response from ads on low-rated stations. The reason, PAMS suggested, was that listeners didn't know what station they were listening to, so the information didn't get reported accurately to the ratings service. If there were memorable call-letter spots, the station could in effect advertise itself, improving the accuracy of ratings reports and allowing it to charge more for advertising, in the familiar snake-eats-itself cycle of life.

The natural way to do that is to use the "station ID," the FCC-mandated announcement of a station's call letters that occurs at regular intervals throughout the broadcast day. PAMS, in effect, was helping stations brand themselves by creating an aural logo—a tune. The station's call letters could be hummed, which made them more memorable. According to PAMS' own history, the company created a group of 10 demonstration jingles, called "Series 1," in the early '50s, and shopped it around to Texas stations. The idea was that the stations would pick the demo they liked and submit copy (call letters and any other phrases) that fit within its structure. PAMS used the instrumental backing tracks already laid down for the demo, and laid a new custom vocal track featuring those harmonizing singers over it. Presto—syndicated station-identification jingles. It's still done the same way today. So if you hear two different stations in different markets using the same melody and singers for their jingles, it's because they bought them from a syndication outfit.

As Top 40 radio started to rule the airwaves in the late '50s, the PAMS-style jingles became even more crucial to stations battling it out in crowded, lucrative markets. Chuck Blore, a program director from El Paso, pioneered a ubiquitous-identification strategy he called "Color Radio" (by analogy with then-novel color television) for L.A.'s KFWB "Color Channel 98." DJs and music were pushed into secondary positions on the air, and the starring roles were filled by jingles, promos, news briefs, weather reports, and other layers of station-specific material. According to his memoirs, Blore wanted promos that sounded like West Side Story, with big orchestration and big, jazzy choral arrangements. And each promo would end with the station call letters sung in the same distinctive chords and rhythm. The Color Radio notion was syndicated to other big markets, and jingles were produced centrally and syndicated as described above.

The voices in Blore's promos were the Johnny Mann Singers, and ever since, this septet have been cranking out their distinctive harmonies for stations all over the country. You can hear their demos at their website. Ironically, the same outfit takes credit for pushing KHJ-Los Angeles, "Boss Radio," into the top spot over KFWB in 1965, with a cleaner, snappier sound and integrated DJ intros. That highly produced jazzy feel (alternating between unisons and augmented chords, rising on the final syllable but never resting on a tonic note) is now associated with adult contemporary and oldies radio, since the folks who grew up listening to Top 40 are now enjoying the mellow sounds of Sting's lute in their rocking chairs. It also persists in talk radio, since those stations are the inheritors of the fast-paced, no-dead-air approach Blore pioneered. I'm sure you're supplying your own examples as you read; as for me, I'll be humming "Z-Ninety-Eight-Point-FIVE!" and "The Real Deal with Bill McNeil!" for the rest of the day. Thanks, Eric!




Ask An A.V. Club Intern

Once again, we set intrepid intern Zoe Weisman to page through your many, many questions and do some digging among the Internet equivalent of the dusty old library stacks. Here's what she has for you this week:

All I remember is that the protagonist was a young boy about 10-12 and he was made to have super powers stemming from a rather boss tiger iron-on that he places on a T-shirt. Some amazing things happen, someone finds out about the T-shirt and steals it, and he eventually has to overcome a lot of things to get it back. Then he finds out that his superpower was inside of him the whole time. Iron-ons are old news these days.



You're remembering the 1978 British movie Sammy's Super T-Shirt, released by the Children's Film Foundation. The lead character, Sammy, gained magical abilities by rubbing his "boss" tiger iron-on, causing lots of mayhem. The theme song, "Sammy's Super T-Shirt," was written and performed by Harry Robinson, best known for the hit, "Hoots Mon (There's A Moose Loose About This Hoose." And you aren't the only one yearning to relive this film. There's actually quite a cult following. You can even sign a petition for it to be released on DVD/VHS. And until the Children's Film Foundation relents, ease the grief with this YouTube clip.




Similar to your other questioners, I am trying to identify a snippet of network television influential on my budding psyche. It's perhaps 1987 or '88, I'm 4 or 5 years old, and I'm watching a movie (or TV show) which features a band of swordsmen (and women?) in a nomadic setting, perhaps the desert. The only things I remember about it is someone gets stabbed with a sword, and the hero gets captured or tricked and is trapped in a closet which he chops his way out of with his sword. It impacted me because at that time, it was by far the most violent thing I'd ever seen, and unfortunately, my grandma found me watching and turned it off halfway through… Any suggestions??



Sounds like your budding psyche got a taste of Steel Dawn, an independent film made in 1987, set in a post-apocalyptic world where water is scarce and there's many a sword-wielding nomad. The hero is Patrick Swayze, who toward the end of the film, gets coaxed into a closet when his love interest, Lisa Niemi, and her child are held hostage. Niemi's previous love interest, Brion James, whom she dropped as soon as Swayze showed up, was stabbed brutally in the chest after an overnight drunk. It's available on DVD.




Is that Nasonex bee voiced by Antonio Banderas? I'd swear on my life it is, but no one else thinks so.



Yes, Banderas is responsible for the voice for the Nasonex Bee. Who better to illustrate the soothing effects of allergy medication than a sultry-voiced Spaniard? It's even listed as a credit in his IMDB entry, if you really need to prove it to your disbelieving friends.




Many years ago, late at night on British telly, I saw an Italian horror short that really stuck with me, but whose identity I've never been able to track down—a gem of narrative economy and urban anxiety, with a shoe-drop ending worthy of Roald Dahl. It had a drone businessman type going into a phone booth, finding that the phone doesn't work, and then finding that the booth door won't open and he's basically trapped. After a while, a crowd of jeering kids and rubberneckers convenes. Eventually, a truck shows up, and some guys put poles under the booth and lift the whole booth onto the back of the truck. Traveling through the city, the truck passes another truck going in the other direction, with another phone booth on the back of it, containing another harried-looking besuited dude.

After a long drive out of the city, the truck goes into a rural tunnel and stops. The booth is lifted off the truck and set down. The camera pulls back from the guy's sallow face to reveal a huge subterranean cavern, entirely filled with phone booths as far as the eye can see, and in each one, a body betraying the horror of a captive death—skeletons, people who've eaten off their own hands, people who've hanged themselves with the phone cord, etc. Genius… I've probably remembered some of the details wrong (I was so young, it's entirely possible that it was not even Italian, but Spanish or something else), but that was basically it. By the look of it, I'd say early '70s or maybe even late '60s. If I had to guess, I'd say it was most likely the work of Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci or some other giallo director… In any event, it would scratch a long-standing itch for me if any of your culture boffins could fill me in on the genesis of the piece. All the best,



You're describing the plot of ""La Cabina" ("The Telephone Box"), a 35-minute Spanish television short made in 1972, directed by Antonio Mercero and starring José Luis López Vázquez. The terrifying surrealist screenplay won an international Emmy, and Vázquez won that year's best-TV-actor Fotogramas de Plata (roughly the equivalent of the Spanish Golden Globe awards) and Premio ACE (an award from the Association of Latin Entertainment Critics). It's available on YouTube in segments, starting here.



Next week: The first sitcom to feature multi-plotline episodes, a decomposing cartoon monster, and more of your questions. Send them to asktheavclub@theonion.com.