Monday, March 31, 2014

Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock and Roll: A Movie That Takes on the Devil's Music

Eric Holmberg
Sometime in 1989, I sat with a friend of mine watching late night Christian T.V., a pastime I still indulge in albeit rarely. I remember being bored mindless until being prodded to almost sit up at the sight of the cover of Channel 3's Fear of Life. This was about seven years that I'd owned that album, though by that time I never listened to it anymore. But it was a relatively obscure enough punk reference that I thought maybe we should watch whatever this is. But we didn't.

Well, I now can finish watching that very program, I think. By chance, I've discovered its title to be Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock and Roll. Seemingly stitched together in a public access studio in 1989 by Reel to Real Ministries and its mulleted and mustachioed screen spokesman, Eric Holmberg, Hell's Bells does not disappoint with many more somewhat esoteric punk reference points, mixed in, of course, with AC/DC (from whose Back in Black album the title derives) and a host of other acts I'll tackle in the next few paragraphs. If you want a quick tour through 80s musical culture from the dissident scenes to the mainstream, this movie delivers.

It is very long, however, and I confess I have not finished watching it. In fact, I've so far watched only four out of 18 segments, running about ten and a half minutes each on YouTube. Does that mean this flick is three hours long? Yes, it does. It's quite a slog, though often I found the narration by Holmberg to be somewhat mesmerizing in its relentless warnings that everything from Mercyful Fate to INXS will invite demons into your heart.

In fact, the film equates Mick Fleetwood dancing around on stage with his tambourine and gawking eyes with Judas Priest, Christian Death, Ozzy Osbourne, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (they got the wrong decade here and there), Crass, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and MDC (in their Millions of Damn Christians phase). There's a featured reference to Diamanda Galas's (you know it!) The Litanies of Satan. One on-screen text roll just lists songs with the word "hell" in them, all from metal acts except "Aloha From Hell" by The Cramps.

Lux Interior from Urgh! A Music War as used in Hell's Bells.

The film has a short segment on the 1978 onstage arrest of The Huns' lead singer Phil Tolstead in Austin on obscenity charges. He had a mock life-size crucifix onstage with him, and he apparently was not very reverent. But do not fear, the film assures us 11 years after the incident. Phil is saved:


To his credit, Holmberg repeats that his goal is not censorship or even labels on records (i.e., he's more liberal than Tipper Gore), but just to get the truth of Christ out there. You have to hand it to him for "resisting the temptation" to call for banning devilish music.

Here's Part 1 of Hell's Bells. (Please forgive the YouTube uploader for his or her damn misplaced apostrophe. That drives me nuts, I tell you.) Good luck!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Greek Odyssey: From "666" to "Chariots of Fire"

The reboot of Cosmos is under way, and it's actually great. Really great. I am such a fan of the original that I had no loftily high expectations for Neil deGrasse Tyson, which works in his favor. That's not to detract from his intrinsic merits, because like Carl Sagan, DeGrasse Tyson speaks with sincere wonder at the majesty not only of the Universe, the Cosmos itself, but also of humans' astounding ability to start piecing it together, i.e., science. DeGrasse Tyson's no Carl Sagan, but neither is he trying to be.

I realize when I re-watch the original Cosmos that one reason I love it so is the plaintive and sparse music of Vangelis that enhanced Sagan's wonderment and the visuals of distant spiral galaxies and nebulae. The Universe, from outer space to the subatomic realm, is filled, so to speak, with a mysterious emptiness. The music hits that note. When most folks hear the name Vangelis, they immediately think of the iconic soundtrack to Chariots of Fire, and with good reason. Along with Cosmos and Blade Runner, it is evidence of Vangelis's ability to capture moods with his synths.

Few people, myself included, would immediately associate him with psychedelic music. But in the late 60s to early 70s, contemporaneous with early Hawkwind and Gong, Vangelis played the keys in the Greek rock outfit Aphrodite's Child. Their hits, like "End of the World," come through in a kind of slow-tempo, Scott-Walkerish, torch-song mode, with raspy-voiced lead singer and bassist Demi Roussos delivering lines in meandering melodies with a sometimes overwrought melodrama. It all works for me.

Vangelis, however, wanted to move into a more grandiose prog direction than the pop-loving Demi. In 1970 and 1971 the band recorded Vangelis's brainchild, the album 666. Based on (you guessed it!) the Book of Revelations, this ambitious album opens with a repetitive militaristic chant like something out of Laibach circa 1985: "We've got the system/to fuck the system." The album that follows is a mixture of quick-clip folk-rock ("Babylon"), catchy ethereal anthems ("The Four Horsemen"), eery soundscapes ("The Marching Beast"), strangely moving choral arrangements ("Loud, Loud, Loud"), and completely off-putting orgasmic freak-outs ("Infinity Symbol"). Apparently, this hour-and-twenty-minute-long concept piece broke the band up, and the rest is cultural history (see above and below).

Demi Roussos went on to become a caftan-draped pop idol in his native Greece and Europe. I came across him, in fact, while researching Greek folksinger Nana Mouskouri, with whom Roussos sang more than one duet.

Aphrodite's Child "End of the World"

Aphrodite's Child "The Four Horsemen"

Demi Roussos & Nana Mouskouri

Cosmos (orig.)

Updated 3/17/14.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Radical Monopoly

Ever wonder why playing Monopoly often causes discord even among friends? This is a game that clearly needs a time limit, like one hour max, because once you're losing, it's really hard to turn the tide. The only way to do it, really, is to have a little luck of the dice and a sense of ruthlessness. That's capitalism! Maybe the strife of Monopoly comes directly from an earlier creation, a board game called The Landlord's Game, which was invented by a fascinating woman named Elizabeth Magie. Magie invented her game to teach about the capriciousness of land owners:

Most Monopoly players don't know (or care) that this game was originally the product of a passion for social and economic justice. In the late 1800s, a young woman named Elizabeth Magie was introduced to the writings of Henry George by her father. She eventually became one of many people who took on the task of trying to teach others what she had learned from studying Progress and Poverty and George's other works. 

Collaborating with friends in her Brentwood, Maryland community, Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord's Game. She applied for a patent, which was granted on January 5th, 1904 (No. 748,626). She explained that the game was to be a "practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences."

An unemployed fellow during the Great Depression named Charles Darrow came up with the idea for Monopoly during his experience playing The LandLord's Game:

The game was introduced by Eugene (Colonel) and Ruth Raiford, friends of Ruth Hoskins, to Charles Todd, who lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania; and, Charles Todd then introduced the game to Charles and Esther Darrow. Eugene Raiford, Charles Todd and Esther Jones Darrow all attended the Quaker Westtown School from 1911 to 1914 or 1915. The subsequent connection with Atlantic City occurred because of the close association of the Westtown School with the Atlantic City Friends' School. As Todd later recalled: "The first people we taught it to after learning it ... was Darrow and his wife Esther. ...It was entirely new to them.... Darrow asked me if I would write up the rules and regulations and I wrote them up ... and gave them to Darrow." 


Charles Darrow was the first to capitalize on the evolution and popularity of the game. He secured a copyright for his enhanced edition of the game in 1933. The familiar cardboard board, packaged in a white box, was produced and sold locally in Philadelphia. In 1935, Darrow submitted the game to the U.S. Patent Office and was granted a patent. The game's origins apparently were not appreciated by the Patent Office clerks. Sales of the game mushroomed, and Charles Darrow became wealthy. Parker Brothers became a major company on the profits of Monopoly.

Magie apparently sold her patent to Parker Brothers in 1932 for $500. She received no royalties because she was satisfied that the single-tax economic theories of Henry George would be disseminated around America. Parker Brothers seemed to slowly withdraw The Landlord's Game from the market, however, in favor of the top-seller Monopoly.

Source: Dodson, Edward J. "How Henry George's Principles Were Corrupted Into a Game Called Monopoly." Understanding Economics. December 2011. Web.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

It's Grammy Time

Kids, with a little pluck and a little luck it only takes 35 years to go from being a punk bashing your head against the wall to being a punk and winning a Grammy with Paul McCartney. I didn't even know the Grammy awards were happening because, well, I couldn't care less. But...

Congratulations, Pat Smear! You damn well earned it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Here Are The Necks

I learned about The Necks in an interview with Michael Gira of the Swans in Mixdown. In it, Gira advises his interviewer to commit suicide because the ostensibly Australian interviewer had never heard of his fellow Aussies, The Necks. Gira can be so harsh. Who knew?

Moreover, who knew that The Necks really are that great, that you'd wonder, as I do now, why you never heard of them sooner? All those who captured the performances in the clips below deserve praise. This music has an unadorned and brooding quality to it. It's emotionally evocative rather than just purely aleatory and noisy. It's very human.

These musicians also clearly thrive from dwelling in this music, as they must play it night after night on tour. What a great musical space to spend so many untold hours! They manage to create this expansive sound out of only piano, double bass, and trap drums.

Live in Copenhagen (2013):

"The Royal Family" in Sydney (1989):

"Guelph" in Sydney (2008):

Incidentally, reading Gira interviews years ago introduced me to other greats. One is Charlemagne Palestine, whom I wrote about at length on this blog in a review of his L.A. concert in 2009. Another is the band Ulan Bator, who often have a similar sense of intensity and dynamics as The Necks.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of ReasonThe End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read Letter to a Christian Nation, which I thought was good in places but overall too antagonistic in tone, I was unprepared to like The End of Faith. But Harris's sometimes bitingly funny writing style and clear argumentation hooked me.

As far as the substance of his main arguments, this much I can agree with: Beliefs matter. If you believe that Heaven awaits you for martyrdom in the cause of propagating your faith, then you are a tinderbox waiting for a fuse. A "fundamentalist" is only as prone to violence or peacefulness as the fundamentals (i.e., sacred texts) mandate in their plain language.

His last chapter on the nature of consciousness is a great tonic for the fearful portrayal of violent faith in the rest of the book. He really makes a wonderful case here for the efficacy of contemplative mysticism to short-circuit religion's claims on what is reality. He also argues that religions of the East offer far more wisdom than the Abrahamic religions of the West due to their emphasis on examining the nature of consciousness.

I agree with one other of his main arguments, too, which is really a corollary of the arguments above. Harris points out that not all religions are the same. His most striking case study is that of Jainism. In the chapter "The Problem With Islam", he writes:

A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely. We  would lose more of our crops to pests, perhaps (observant Jains generally will not kill anything, including insects), but we would not find ourselves surrounded by suicidal terrorists or by a civilization that widely condones their actions.

Incidentally, he repeats this same line of reasoning in Letter to a Christian Nation, and with equally convincing effect.

Of his main theses, however, I still cannot support the idea that religious liberals and "moderates" are worse than fundamentalists because they somehow provide cover for religious extremism. He doesn't make that case well. His argument is basically that religious moderates rely on the same sacred texts as fundamentalists and therefore offer credibility and respectability for the worst parts of those texts, namely the worst parts of the Bible and the Koran. I don't think that's the case.

Whereas I do think that religious moderates (or what I often call "religious modernists") in the West owe a great debt to the advances of secular knowledge that have led to all the modern movements of liberation since the Renaissance, and especially since the Enlightenment, I don't think that means that modernist approaches to traditional religion are null and void.

In fact, I think Harris buries the lead of his book in the Epilogue. There he writes:

The only thing we should respect in a person's faith is his desire for a better life in this world; we need never have respected his certainty that one awaits him in the next.

That's actually a strong argument not to alienate religious moderates, but rather to embrace them. Many religious moderates already do compassionate work for the betterment of humanity now on account of their faith. The End of Faith would be more balanced if Harris made this plain.

My biggest problem with the book is his statement "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." Harris has received a lot of criticism for this statement, so I'll not regurgitate it all here. His response on his blog, in which he places the statement in context, I still find unsatisfactory. Beliefs matter, but it is a bedrock principle of democratic society that one's right to hold certain beliefs is, shall we say, sacrosanct.

Overall, a compelling and thought-provoking book. I highly recommend it, despite its flaws.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

It Was a Happier Time? Village People Performing "Ready for the Eighties" at the Playboy Mansion (1979)

Another artifact of the strangely optimistic (coked up?) sound and allure of disco culture. Hugh Hefner was, I guess, open-minded. But do we have to see him dance on national television? Yes, if we are compelled, as I am, to indulge in the nostalgic voyeurism of this "happy" T.V. moment. There's Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy bunny who was later murdered, and her co-host--the kissing bandit himself--Richard "Survey Says" Dawson, unashamedly drunk as a skunk. Yes, they're all gettin' down and lookin' forward to the 80s, which the Village People told us were "just gonna be great!"

If you can't stand to watch the first four minutes of disco-dancing and puppet-humor in this clip, then see the Village People perform the song "Ready for the Eighties" at the 4:40 mark. Incidentally, in one of my rock 'n' roll endeavors of the nineties, I had my band record an overly distorted but still disco-ish version of this song. The recording isn't so great 16 years later, I have to say, except at the end in a noise-guitar send-up when I yell "Managua!" Because, well, that was the eighties. I think it is about time to revisit this song yet again.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Deity's Angry Man

I never thought I'd see a bona fide Deist fundamentalist! But now I have. The thought actually never occurred to me before watching this video that this particular form of rabid faith could possibly exist. This guy's really, really angry that atheists don't cling to the one, true non-faith of Deism-with-a-capital-D, as revealed to humankind in the sacred texts of Thomas Paine.

But this guy also claims to be a truer atheist than atheists are because he rejects both God and also the No-God of atheism. Try to stay on that mental treadmill without falling off!

Watch the 15 minute video above, if you've got the grit to endure it. This chap excoriates Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais and "active atheists" everywhere for spreading their "gospel" that mirrors the religions they despise. I practically had to wipe away the spittle I imagined flying at me from my computer screen.

Here's a drinking game: Take a shot every time he says "Abrahamic faiths."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Arrival is Here

Unarius used to have an incredible presence on Public Access television. I'll never forget their space-truckin' Cadillac. Archangel Uriel and her husband seemed fringe even within the New Age movement, but so much more entertaining than the rest (with the exception of Master Ho). The Unarian religion-like thing is a masterpiece of confusion. The Unarians (Unariuns?) call what they do "science." But do they really believe their own shtick? I'll never know, and Unarius: The Arrival, an hour-length narrative film about the true story, er, mythology of the Unarius cult, doesn't answer much. But what a strange, frivolous, incoherent, and happy place to be for a while! The film somehow has the glacial pace of a Tarkovsky film crunched into one hour, which I think makes it kind of an epic.

UPDATE: In answer to my own question, it appears they really DO believe what they say! At least, that's what appears in this trailer for Children of the Stars: A Story of Unarius. I'm lost, but willing to get more lost in this documentary about Archangel Uriel and her outer-space friends. Caveat emptor, though. For all I know, this cult has its own sordid history as do so many other cults.

SPOILER ALERT: I am left with a question that troubles me about the morality of this film. Why is living a pastoral life as an early human somehow karmic punishment for mass murder?

Edited 7/27/13.

Friday, July 19, 2013