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Any Major Freaks & Geeks

November 16th, 2017 10 comments

Every two or three years I make a pilgrimage to my set of 18 episodes of the short-lived TV series Freaks And Geeks. It is not only the greatest series ever to be cancelled after only one season, but one of the greatest TV series of all time. Almost every scene is a marvel.

To me, it completes the great American Schools Trilogy: The Wonder Years, Dazed And Confused; Freaks And Geeks. The first outlived its magnificence by about two or three seasons; the Linklater film absolutely needed no sequel; but Freaks And Geeks was put to death prematurely.

All three narratives about schooling succeeded because, though set in US schools with the culture that comes with it, the characters are almost universally recognisable. We’ve all met them, or some of them. Maybe we were them.

I went to school in Germany, where there no high school sports teams, and the sub-cultures were different. We had punks, poppers (New Romantic conservatives), rockers, Neo-Nazi skinheads… and mostly unaffiliated people. Not being much of a joiner I was among the unaffiliated. In Freaks And Geeks terms, I’d have been a “Freak” — though, like the Geeks, I loved Bill Murray and the movie Stripes (I even agree with Neal that the second half of that movie is best forgotten).

But whatever differences in the sub-cultures, I have known Wayne Arnold (who might as well have been modeled on my school nemesis, Marvin) and Paul Phyffer in The Wonder Years, Mitch Kramer and his two pals, Mike Newhouse and Tony Olson, Randall “Pink” Floyd, Fred O’Bannion and Don Dawson (another nemesis) in Dazed And Confused, and Sam Weir, Neal Schweiber, Bill Haverchuck (they were all my friends at some point), Alan White (bullies are all the same), Nick Andopolis and Ken Miller in Freaks And Geeks.

I’m on less safe ground identifying with girls, because if you’re a boy, your school domain is largely male. Still, I know Kim Kelly — the great Busy Philips in Freaks And Geeks —very well.

To me, Freaks And Geeks resonates in particular because in 1980/81, when the show is set, I was 14, the same age as the junior trio of Sam, Bill and Neal. While the cultural markers are different, these characters are my peers.

And so, if we can recognise the characters, or identify with them, then their experiences need not mirror ours exactly for us to be part of the story.

As in The Wonder Years and Dazed And Confused, the music is an important character in Freaks And Geeks (indeed, I did a mix of songs from The Wonder Years a few years ago; the mix has been re-upped). Here I cannot draw from the well of nostalgia. That American 1980/81 is not my 1980/81. And still, of the songs on this mix, which all featured on Freaks And Geeks, I owned six at the time (since you ask: Bowie, Seger, Billy Joel, Deep Purple, Supertramp, Jethro Tull).

As a bonus track I add “Lady L.”, the hackneyed love song Nick (Jason Segel) writes for Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), which has attained something of a cult status. The music-related scene that sticks with me, however, is the one where the Weir parents listen to The Who’s Squeeze Box to determine whether the British band’s concert is suitable for their teenage daughter.

The CD-R length rule required me to omit some worthy contenders; indeed, I expect to be hated for choosing Supertramp ahead of XTC (but I really don’t like No Language In Our Lungs) or Rush (whom I don’t really like, full stop). Maybe there’ll be a follow-up…

As ever, CD-R length, homeworked covers, PW in comments.

1. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Bad Reputation (1981)
2. Joe Jackson – I’m The Man (1979)
3. Warren Zevon – Poor, Poor Pitiful Me (1976)
4. Bob Seger – You’ll Accompany Me (1980)
5. Little River Band – Reminiscing (1978)
6. Billy Joel – Rosalinda’s Eyes (1978)
7. Kansas – Dust In The Wind (1978)
8. Jethro Tull – Aqualung (1971)
9. George Baker Selection – Little Green Bag (1969)
10. The Who – Squeeze Box (1975)
11. Deep Purple – Hush (1968)
12. Van Halen – Little Dreamer (1978)
13. Journey – Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’ (1979)
14. Styx – Renegade (1978)
15. David Bowie – Fashion (1980)
16. Supertramp – Take The Long Way (1979)
17. Charlie Daniels Band – The Devil Went Down To Georgia (1979)
18. Pure Prairie League – Amie (1972)
19. Grateful Dead – Ripple (1970)
20. Jason Segal – Lady L. (2000)

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Any Major Music from The Wonder Years

June 22nd, 2011 7 comments

Few TV shows ever have so accurately observed the condition of the suburban teenager as The Wonder Years did. One may regard the series, which ran for six seasons (from January 1988 to May 1993), as an exercise in nostalgia. Coming into the middle of a revival that celebrated the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s, it benefited from fortuitous timing, but as a story of growing up as told by an adult man, the timeframe made perfect sense.

Some may accuse the show of being an apologia for the oppression of nameless bourgeois suburbia, or right-on rhetoric to that effect. Indeed, in the pilot episode the narrator does defend suburban life, arguing that far from being anonymous, suburbia has plenty individual stories to tell. Like that of Kevin Arnold. It may be rose-tintedly nostalgic, it may be middle-class, but it is also profoundly human. Kevin’s stories are not extraordinary; they are universal, at least for those growing up in similar western middle-class circumstances. Imagine the teen embarrassment at having to take a three-year younger girl to a dance where everybody is a head smaller than you, as Kevin has to in one of my favourite episodes.

Fred Savage as Kevin was outstanding. The nuances of his body language were as articulate as his delivery of the scripted lines. Daniel Stern narrates as the adult Kevin, and Savage expresses the inner life exposed in the commentary, with a half-smile here or raised eyebrow there. He was wonderfully understated. And we can recognise the people around him. People much like them existed in our own families or in the circles of our childhood friends. The obnoxious brother Wayne? Know him. Geeky friend Paul? Know him? Grouchy dad Jack? Know him. Kindly mom Norma? Know her. Schoolmate Hobson? Oh dear, yes, I know that son of a bitch too.

I don’t think the female roles are as well realised. Winnie looks like she is going to cry even when she’s full of joy. Nemesis Becky Slater is one-dimensional. Sister Keren too often slides into the realms of caricature. But so does Wayne, even as his obnoxiousness is awesome. The thing is, we are watching these people exclusively through the filter of Kevin’s memories, with all his biases. So Winnie is soft as a melting marshmallow because that’s how Kevin sees her. Keren is an overcompensating hippie because Kevin remembers her that way. And Mrs Arnold might be sexy, for all we know, but Kevin won’t see her like that, so nor shall we.

Twenty years ago, when I first watched The Wonder Years, my empathy resided almost exclusively with Kevin. I was in my mid-twenties, and remembered well being a teenager. Now I have a teenage son (whose superb quality of character reminds me a little of Kevin Arnold’s more admirable qualities), and I can identify with the father, too. Well, not entirely. Although Dan Lauria, who played Jack Arnold, was about the age I am now when the show was filmed, he seems to be so much older, at least in my mind (I bet Jack Arnold wouldn’t write blogs about Twattery in Pop). But I can see the father’s point of view better now.

Lauria’s performance was admirably subtle, at least if one looks carefully. There is an almost imperceptible moment in the first season in which Lauria captures the loving father beneath the grumbling gruffness. Kevin and his dad had bonded during a day spent in Jack’s office. Back home at night, Jack lets Kevin look through his telescope. As Kevin looks through the instrument, Jack has his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He gently strokes it with his thumb, as fathers do. It’s a beautiful scene. I somehow grieve Jack’s death, though fictional and post-scripted in the final episode to 1975.

The first four seasons (the first consists of only six episodes) are as good as any half-hour show on TV. By the fourth season, the storylines became more laboured, and by the fifth the steam was beginning to run out. The sixth and final season, in which Kevin suddenly grows up, was one too many.  Still the latter seasons featured the always watchable Giovanni Ribisi (and a more regular future Friends star, David Schwimmer). In The Wonder Years we were also introduced to Juliet Lewis, as Wayne’s girlfriend, and John Corbett (Northern Exposure, Sex And The City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as Keren’s libertine hippie boyfriend who gets fiercely interrogated by little Kevin. And Teri from Albuquerque (pictured right), whom Kevin kisses while on holiday in Ocean City in season 3, went on to become porn star Holly Sampson (article here).

Alas, The Wonder Years is not available on DVD (though it’s not difficult to find the entire series on the Internet), apparently because of licensing problems with the many songs featured in the show – several repeatedly, such as The Byrds’ Turn Turn Turn, The Temptations’ My Girl, Joni Mitchell’s version of Both Sides Now, Joan Baez’s Forever Young, The Association’s Cherish, Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The title song, Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help From My Friends, was astutely picked — suitably nostalgic with lyrics that invoke the broad premise of the show (that is, the importance of relationships). The songs were well chosen — not many TV shows were scored with pop numbers back then. The pedantic music fan will, of course, be mildly irritated when scenes are scored by songs that had not yet been released at the time. But evident care was taken to ensure that songs that featured in a storyline – playing in the background on the radio, perhaps, or being referred to by name – already existed at the time the scenes are set in.

And so on to a mix of songs that featured in The Wonder Years. In brackets are the year of the song’s release, followed by the season and episode number it appeared in. As usual, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R (sorry folks, no cover this time).

TRACKLISTING:
1. Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends (1968 – 4/68)
2. The Beach Boys – When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) (1964 – 6/111)
3. The Association – Cherish (1966 – 1/6)
4. Lovin’ Spoonful – Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind (1965 – 3/44)
5. Percy Faith Orchestra – Theme from A Summer Place (1960 – 2/23)
6. The Chordettes – Never On A Sunday (1961 – 2/23)
7. Hank Williams – Hey Good Lookin’ (1953 – 4/51)
8. Marty Robbins – A White Sport Coat (1957 – 6/113)
9. Johnny Rivers – Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’) (1977 – 6/105)
10. Jackson Browne – Jamaica Say You Will (1972 – 5/70)
11. Elton John – Seasons (1971 – 3/40)
12. The Spinners – Could It Be I’m Falling In Love (1973 – 6/109)
13. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – You’re All I Need To Get By (1967 – 3/37)
14. Fontella Bass – Rescue Me (1965 – 4/58)
15. John Fred & The Playboy Band – Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) (1968 – 5/89)
16. Ronny and the Daytonas – Little G.T.O (1964 – 5/74)
17. Jo Jo Gunne – Run Run Run (1972 – 5/85)
18. Iron Butterfly – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968 – 2/20 & 3/40)
19. Mott The Hoople – All The Way From Memphis (1973 – 6/106)
20. Randy Newman – I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (1968 – 4/68)
21. Tim Hardin – If I Were A Carpenter (1966 – 5/73)
22. Joni Mitchell – The Circle Game (1970 – 3/27)
23. Joan Baez – Forever Young (1974 – 4/47 & 5/83)
24. Pachelbel – Canon In D Major (2/13)

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Origleenals: Songs that Glee borrowed

March 14th, 2011 3 comments

“What, the show for kids?” my colleague, the one with an extravagant collection of adidas tracksuit jackets, replied when I asked if she watched Glee. It’s a frequent mistake to confuse Glee with High School Musical, and therefore to presume that the interpretations of the songs covered on Glee must be intrinsically inferior to their originals. Fact is, in several cases the Glee versions are equal to their originals, and sometimes they exceed the high bars set by the versions they draw from.

The best example of this is Glee’s cover of the Bacharach/David medley One Less Bell To Answer/A House Is Not A Home, originally a quite stunning duet of Barbra Steisand with herself on the 1971 Barbra Joan Streisand album. On Glee, the utterly wonderful Kristin Chinoweth and Matthew Morrison (as teacher Will Shuester) improve on Streisand’s template, with Chinoweth’s strong and vulnerable voice leading and Morrison shining with is restraint. It is one of the best pieces of musical television I have seen. See it here.

Glee is about the music; the drama is generally incidental. The action is set in McKinley High School in Ohio, and it’s not a stretch to presume that Glee draws some of its dramatic inspiration from the sadly short-lived but excellent series Freaks And Geeks, which was also set in an Ohio school named McKinley High. Glee’s dramatic narrative is not always a vapid device used to propel the narrative from song to song. Some episodes are very much plot-driven. The “hey kids, let’s put on a show” contrivance of the MGM musicals (which the producers clearly love) and periodic  use of soap opera mechanisms may be used liberally, but Glee does deal with real issues, aiming to raise consciousness.

When the show succeeds in that – the record is patchy – it does so extremely well, especially in addressing subjects such as bullying, homophobia and prejudice. The character of Kurt, played by the superlative Chris Colfer, is a vehicle by which to explore homosexuality. The female football coach, unkindly but descriptively named Shannon Beiste (pronounced “beast”, played beautifully by Dort-Marie Jones), is being excluded, socially and romantically, because of her size and looks. A scene in which Will Shuester gives Beiste her first kiss is as tender as anything one will see on TV.

Other times, the treatment of issue-lines is on the heavy-handed side. Artie’s disability more often than not is a plot device (whatever happened to the walking gadget from the Christmas episode), and the recent sex-ed episode was as ambitious as it was shallow (and Gwyneth Paltrow has a way of going from adorable to annoying in double time).  Such moments are often saved by great song selections, such as Stevie Nicks’ Landslide to articulate and instance of unrequited (bisexual) love.

And then there is Jane Lynch as adidas obsessive evilton Sue Sylvester, who gets the show’s best lines, and shows a massive dose of humanity when she interacts with her sister, who has Down’s syndrome. If there was no other reason to watch Glee, Jane Lynch would provide a most persuasive argument to do so anyway.

Still, Glee is mostly about the music, so here is a compilation of 21 songs that have been covered on Glee. Some of them are not originals, but covers from which the Glee versions drew (such as Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ukulele-driven version of Over The Rainbow or  Sammy Davis Jr’s version of The Lady Is A Tramp). Others are versions I thought readers might enjoy, such as the Stones’ live version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want from 1969’s The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus show, the late Ronnie James Dio’s cover of Aerosmith’s Dream On, and Bobby Darin’s take on Don’t Rain On My Parade, which in Lea Michele’s rendition obviously draws from Streisand. Also included is Streisand’s duet with Judy Garland on the latter’s TV show in 1963, which was pivotal in setting Streisand on the path to superstardom (of course, she would have made it anyway).

The mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R. To look up when the songs were performed on Glee and by whom, look here for Series 1 and Series 2 (episodes are below in brackets behind the years). PW in comments.

TRACKLISTING:
1. Journey – Any Way You Want It (1980) (22/1)
2. The Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want (live) (1969) (13/1)
3. Ike & Tina Turner – River Deep, Mountain High (1966) (4/2)
4. Parliament – Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker) (1975) (21/1)
5. Rufus and Chaka Khan – Tell Me Something Good (live) (1983) (21/1)
6. Bill Withers – Lean On Me (live) (1972) (10/1)
7. Barbra Streisand – One Less Bell To Answer/A House Is Not A Home (1971) (16/1)
8. Bobby Darin – Don’t Rain On My Parade (1966) (13/1)
9. Dean Martin – Sway (Quien sera) (1954) (8/2)
10. Julie Andrews – Le Jazz Hot (1982) (4/2)
11. Margaret Whiting & Johnny Mercer – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (1949) (10/2)
12. Sammy Davis Jr. – The Lady Is A Tramp (live) (1963) (18/1)
13. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – Over The Rainbow (2006) (22/1)
14. The Pretenders – I’ll Stand By You (1994) (10/1)
15. Fleetwood Mac – Landslide (1975)  (15/2)
16. Ronnie James Dio & Yngwie Malmsteen – Dream On (1999) (19/1)
17. Kiss – Beth (1976) (20/1)
18. John Denver – Leaving On A Jet Plane (1969) (1/1)
19. Dionne Warwick – Don’t Make Me Over (1962) (11/1)
20. Diana Ross – Home (1978) (16/1)
21. Judy Garland & Barbra Streisand – Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again (1963) (4/2)
BONUS TRACK: George Thorogood & the Destroyers – One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer (1977) (14/2)

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