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.