Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club - March 14, 2008


The Two-Take Blues

Recently, a personal funk drove me to get into the king of the Delta Blues, the legendary Robert Johnson. As the story goes, Johnson recorded only 29 songs before the hellhounds caught him, and the devil took the world's greatest guitar player to hell. My question is this: 13 of Johnson's songs have "alternate takes." What's the story behind these? Why did he record some songs twice, and others only once? Who determined which was the regular take and which the alternate? If Johnson had spare time in the studio, why didn't he record different songs, thus giving us more to enjoy today? Maybe that last one is a bit selfish, but I'd really appreciate it if anyone had an answer. Thanks!

Joshua Goodman

Christopher Bahn goes on the hellhounds' trail:

According to the liner notes of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, Johnson actually recorded at least one alternate take of all 29 of his extant songs—it's just that some of those versions have since been lost. They might have been erased or destroyed after the official version of the song was chosen, or might simply never have been found by the fanatical delta-blues aficionados who tracked down and collected old, forgotten records obsessively, and kept this stuff from vanishing in the mists of time. See Gayle Dean Wardlow's essay collection Chasin' That Devil Music for a great description of just how hard it was to find rare 78 rpm vinyl in the 1960s.


Elsewhere in his book, Wardlow says "it was common for a pre-World War Two record company to record an artist at least once a year for 10 to 16 songs for release during the coming 12 months. This allowed the company to release a double-sided 78 rpm disc by that artist every two months or so. The more songs Johnson recorded, the more money from flat fees per side he received." So obviously it was in Johnson's interest to record as much as he could; it was simply standard practice to get a couple of takes of whatever song a musician brought into the studio that day. (Other sources claim that Johnson nailed several songs in one take, making an alternate unnecessary, but I find it hard to believe that his producer wouldn't have said "Okay, one more time, please," for safety's sake, if nothing else.)

As for who decided which version would be released, that was almost certainly not Johnson's choice; it was probably decided by Don Law, who produced all five of Johnson's recording sessions in 1936 and 1937. As far as I can tell, Johnson was pretty productive in the few sessions that he did have. The real tragedy is that he didn't have more of them—he didn't begin recording until at least five years after he became a professional musician, and although his single "Terraplane Blues" sold well, his record label, Vocalion, apparently didn't push to record more frequently after further singles failed to be as successful. And then of course there was the whole "poisoned with strychnine-laced whiskey by a jealous husband" thing that ended his career and his life in 1938.

He's Quadrophonic, So Hologramic

We had an Apple IIc when I was a kid, and there was some classical song that they put on one of their how-to discs simply called "Sonata." The disc was like a "tour of the Apple IIC" filled with games and whatnot to get you acquainted with such important tasks as Open Apple+Control+reset, and "Butterfly+Shift+C." What is the artist and song title? I don't know classical music enough to even know where to begin… It's a catchy enough tune that I find myself humming it 30-odd years later.



Donna Bowman was also once a proud Apple //c owner (1987-1991):

Apple didn't make it easy for you with those eight-character file names, I know. But Gregg, c'mon—I bet anybody taking Music Appreciation down at the local college could have identified this for you if you hummed a few bars. Dummmm… dum dum dummmm… da-da-dummmm. That's Sonata in C Major by one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Koechel number 545. And in case you want to relive the //c version in all its tinny, polyphonic glory, an enterprising YouTuber has uploaded a video of his ancient computer playing the piece. (I predict great things for this krb3141; the cinematography is reminiscent of Bela Tarr.)

That "music" takes me back to the days when it was a major accomplishment to get a computer to spit out more than one tone at the same time. The //c, a strange hybrid of the early all-in-one Mac and the ubiquitous educational workhorse called Apple ][, were among the last computers to use 5 1/4" floppies. The processor/floppy drive/keyboard was a single lightweight unit with a handle that swung down to act as a stand, tucking neatly under the small green-on-black display. (Why there was a handle at all was something of a mystery to me… without the display, there wasn't much use in taking it anywhere.)


Luckily, things got a lot better for personal-computer-generated music in short order after the late '80s. In fact, music—at least in short bursts—became integral to branding the operating system experience. In one of my favorite blog series of all time, Tom Whitwell of Music Thing explored what he called "tiny music" for a week in 2005. There, he revealed that the Mac startup chord was created in a home studio for use on the Quadra 700, and became standard equipment on all Macs when Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997 and insisted on the "good sound." If you prefer to boot up on a Microsoft product, you are familiar with the six seconds of swoosh and ever-so-slightly off-the-beat piano notes that greets Windows 95 users; it was created by Brian Eno, who was paid $35,000 for his part in the giant Windows 95 launch.

All these pieces of computer music demonstrate success (it turned on! it works!), but I can't help but be reminded of the "death chimes," the arpeggiated version of the Mac startup chord that played when your Mac couldn't boot. Just so we don't get too cocky, here's a YouTube video that collects the sonic birth and death tones of a bunch of vintage Macs:

Okay, A Few Flipper Babies Were Slightly Harmed

You know that whole, "No animals were harmed in the making of this movie" line that is in the credits of almost every movie (whether or not your recall any animals being in said movie)? When did that start? I am assuming that previously, animals were harmed in movies. Are there any scenes of actual animal being harmed from popular movies that most people would remember? (And, I should add, I'm not some sort of creep who is looking for animal snuff films or anything, I am just curious.) (And also, I have already thought of the bull in Apocalypse Now.)



At the end of every movie I can think of, there's a little notice that says "No animals were harmed in the making of this film." My question is, what happens if an animal or two IS harmed during filming? If someone accidentally steps on a cat's tail on set, does that mean the film loses its certification? How do they appease the magical animal-rights gods?


Granite Morale

Tasha Robinson has accidentally stepped on her cats' tails:

It's been widely reported that the American Humane Association started monitoring animal action in 1940, following public outcry over a scene in the 1939 Henry Fonda movie Jesse James, in which a horse was sent plunging off a 70-foot cliff to its death as part of a stunt. (I haven't seen the film; some of the reports I've read claim it was two horses, attached to a wagon.) But the "animal action was monitored" statement in film credits didn't come into being until 1972, and the AHA's Film and TV Unit says that it wasn't until 1996 that the organization actually established tiers between types of animal care—outstanding, acceptable, unacceptable—and issued standardized guidelines on how to receive the "no animals were harmed" stamp of AHA approval. The organization's website includes a lengthy history page explaining how its ratings have changed over time.


Among other things, the site explains that the "no animals were harmed" tag is now only given to films where the animal care was closely monitored and rated "outstanding," while films where not all action could be observed—say, because it was shot overseas, or over a very extended period, and the AHA just didn't have the budget or personnel to have someone on set the entire time—might be given the lower, and now far more common, "acceptable" rating, which comes with the end credit "The American Humane Association monitored the animal action," but makes no statements about harm. Sometimes, this statement means animals were harmed, but the AHA deemed that the production's practices weren't at fault. Sometimes it just means that the AHA didn't get to observe the filming. Outside sources critical of the AHA provide some interesting perspective, claiming that a film can get an "acceptable" rating even if animals are seriously injured or killed on the set, if the injuries are deemed authentic accidents rather than the results of cruelty, neglect, poor planning, etc. Which means those cats with stepped-on tails aren't likely to cause a film to lose its certification.

The AHA's site also maintains a list of films, their ratings, and the explanations, though it doesn't appear to be particularly well-maintained, and the listings pages aren't very extensive or current. But they can be viewed by rating, so if you're out to find films where animals definitively were harmed, check out the very short, very dated, but nonetheless interesting list of "unacceptable" films, which does in fact include Apocalypse Now. Also The Abyss, in which a rat was forced into oxygenated liquid, and Cannibal Holocaust, in which various live animals are killed onscreen. Another, separate page, provides detailed animal-action reviews of current films, which don't necessarily seem to go into the archives when they expire. So read up about all the depressing puppy deaths on the set of Snow Buddies while you can.


Department Of Not Our Department

I've got 2 questions for you. First, do you know when the release date will be for The Untitled Onion Movie, or at least an idea of what month it will be released? Second, how will you determine who does the review of the movie, considering there is somewhat of a conflict of interest for The A.V. Club to review a movie made by The Onion.


I would also like to suggest that The A.V. Club record a commentary track for the DVD. I realize that you probably had zero to do with the making of the film, and would not have that background insight into the making (but let's be honest, CTOTD proves that most of those commentaries suck anyway). I think it would be endlessly entertaining however to hear the bastions of popular culture that you are comment on this film from the viewpoint of someone not associated with the making. Thank you and keep up the good work,


We don't know much more than you do about The Onion Movie, TJ. (And everyone else who's asked questions about it.) As you noted, The A.V. Club wasn't involved with making it, and won't be involved in releasing it, so don't expect a commentary track from us. Last we heard, the release date was "first quarter 2008, exact date TBD." And no, we won't be reviewing it, since yes, it would be a massive conflict of interest. We didn't review Our Dumb World, either. (Though it is pretty awesome.) For that matter, a commentary track by us would also be something of a conflict of interest, not to mention kind of uninformative. "Here's another scene we weren't around for, weren't involved in writing, and know basically nothing about…"


While we're at it, we also have to take exception with your characterization of Commentary Tracks Of The Damned. The point of that column isn't that commentary tracks suck, it's that terrible, terrible movies sometimes inadvertently produce hilarious commentary tracks, as the filmmakers behind box-office bombs try to justify their misbegotten creations—or far more often, pretend that they were secretly box-office and critical successes. While the commentary tracks on financial flops aren't always great, we tend to have an awful lot of fun listening to them.

Next week: Back to Bradbury yet again. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.


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