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

From The “Other” Pile: Gary Lewis, Peyton Place and avant-horror

Illustration for article titled From The “Other” Pile: Gary Lewis, Peyton Place and avant-horror

We try to cover the most significant new releases in our various A.V. Club review sections, but occasionally there are worthy CDs, DVDs, TV shows or web-based entertainments that just don’t quite fit. Periodically I’ll be rounding up the best of these items—mainly reissues, cult items and other obscurities—and giving them a hearty “Hey, check this out!”


Gary Lewis & The Playboys, The Complete Liberty Singles (Collector’s Choice)

In 1965 and ’66, Gary Lewis & The Playboys landed seven consecutive singles—their first seven—in Billboard’s Top 10, becoming the only '60s recording act to achieve that feat. The Playboys were one of the original prefab rock acts; Lewis (son of Jerry) had been drumming alongside some friends at Disneyland when producer Snuff Garrett at Liberty Records got the idea to combine Lewis’ semi-celebrity with the best session-men, a decent set of songs from the writers’ mill, and some well-placed promotional dollars. Boom… instant hit records. Beginning with the #1 smash “This Diamond Ring”—which was financed and promoted with the help of The Nutty Professor himself—The Playboys established a snappy, commercial sound that was like an American version of Merseybeat, crossed with surf and Vegas-ready sophisti-pop. With Ron Hicklin harmonizing with—and smoothing out—Lewis’ voice, and with songs and backing by the likes of Al Kooper, Leon Russell and Jim Keltner, the recordings credited to Gary Lewis & The Playboys were some of the catchiest and best-produced of the decade. Though essentially a garage band, The Playboys had access to resources that others of their generation didn’t have. (If they sang a silly little ditty like “My Heart’s Symphony,” they could add an actual orchestra.) Like The Everly Brothers, The Playboys pumped out Top 40 fare that represented the mid-‘60s west coast hit factory at its most ruthlessly effective.

Granted, Gary Lewis himself wasn’t the equal of Phil or Don Everly, who could sing, play and write like the well-trained, lifelong pros they were. But as with the excellent Everly Brothers anthology Walk Right Back, the new Collectors’ Choice Playboys anthology The Complete Liberty Singles makes a nice mini-tour of the era’s musical evolution. Aside from the often goofy B-sides—including the country-and western parody “Time Stands Still” and the spoken-word Hollywood tour “Looking For Stars”—these singles progress in common ‘60s fashion from teenybopper fare to light psychedelia, and even briefly to twangy Sunset Strip roots-rock on 1967’s “The Loser (With A Broken Heart).” Then Lewis spent a year in the Army, and came back in 1968 in a more conservative vein, recording outright bubblegum or cheesy lounge music versions of pop standards like “Rhythm Of The Rain.” Most of the top-flight collaborators who’d backed him early on had moved to more respectable endeavors.

So The Complete Liberty Singles is at once a record of one minor star’s showbiz rise-and-fall, and an archive of a place in time in pop music history. (It’s especially significant that The Playboys relied so heavily on the anonymous Ron Hicklin, whose “Ron Hicklin Singers” would go on to provide background vocals for commercials, TV themes, and ersatz rock groups like The Partridge Family and The Brady Kids for much of the next two decades.) It’s also a collection of some amazingly bright, enjoyable music. These songs may be product, but they’re fine product.

Peyton Place: Volume One (Shout! Factory)

Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel Peyton Place was a sensation from the moment it was published, spawning a hit movie, a sequel, and a movie of the sequel, as well as controversy across the country from those who found Metalious’ frank description of small-town vice—from child sexual abuse to abortion to rampant adultery—a bit too spicy for the Eisenhower era. By the time Peyton Place became a prime-time soap in 1964, the title alone had entered the pop culture lexicon as shorthand for “shocking.” And while the TV series was relatively tame stuff—keeping the routine adultery but losing the more extreme perversion—it had an intense, potboiler quality that makes it pretty compelling even now. Peyton Place aired multiple times a week and never repeated, so by the time it ended its run in 1969, 514 half-hour episodes had been completed. Shout! Factory’s DVD set contains the first 31, starring a young Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow as teenage lovers torn apart by parental pressure and a chain of circumstance. The DVD could use a contextual featurette or two, but in a way the show is more fascinating withut explanation. It looks like a 1964 TV series—all back-lot-y and Main Street idyllic—and yet the characters are all sleeping around and trying to kill each other. It’s like the dark side of Mayberry.

Experiments In Terror 3 (Provocateur)

The “Experiments In Terror” anthologies explore the intersection of the avant-garde—which frequently traffics in the disturbing—and actual horror films. The shorts on Experiments In Terror 3 range from the puckish found-footage shocker “Satan Claus” (by the reclusive, possibly fictional filmmaker J.X. Williams) to the delirious Marie Losier/Guy Maddin collaboration “Manuelle Labor” (about a woman giving birth to a pair of hands). The DVD contains 90 minutes of eclectic, uniformly strong films, though two in particular stand out: Carey Burtt’s “The Psychotic Odyssey Of Richard Chase,” a true crime story acted out with dolls and copious amounts of stage-blood; and Ben Rivers’ “Terror!,” an exceptionally sly compilation of horror movie kill-scenes, edited together so that we get 20 minutes of various people wondering around quiet, spooky houses, muttering people’s names (“John? Is that you?”), followed by a five-minute explosion of some of the goriest footage ever assembled, and then an unexpected twist. Anyone looking for a condensed version of what “Experiments In Terror” is all about should start here. Using only what already exists in popular culture, Rivers shows how the trashiest pulp can be as formally precise and mind-blowingly audacious as high art.