Spiders From Mars

In 1997, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor discovered what have come to be referred to as “spiders” on the surface of Mars. Several years later, a team of scientists was able to determine the cause of these spider-like formations on the surface of Mars. I can’t say I fully understand the explanation, but it’s clear enough that arachnids are not crawling around on the surface of Mars.

The image of spiders from Mars is most closely associated with David Bowie, of course. The Spiders from Mars were his backing band in the early 1970s: Mick Ronson played guitar, Trevor Bolder, who died recently, was on bass, and Mick Woodmansey played the drums. They had been known as The Hype, though with Tony Visconti on bass, but were renamed more or less by default because of the title of David Bowie’s classic 1972 LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. They were with Bowie for another year or so, but then Bowie announced on the final show of the tour that the group would be disbanding. This show was captured in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture. Pennebaker’s approach worked well with Bowie’s visual style, giving the concert an other-worldly feel. I have a memory of seeing this broadcast long ago on ABC, and I set my tape recorder next to the TV to record the audio (it was a less technologically advanced time). The strangest thing I remember about that ABC broadcast is that they bleeped out the word “suicide” from the song “Rock & Roll Suicide.” Apparently, however, the word “suicide” is commonly censored on MTV, at least according to the NY Daily News, who quoted a spokeswoman for MTV as saying, ” ‘Because we know [suicide] is an issue that so many members of our audience struggle with, we do not take any references to suicide lightly’ ”

Bowie performed “Rock & Roll Suicide” right after shocking the audience with what sounded like him announcing his retirement. He didn’t retire, of course, but he and The Spiders from Mars did go their separate ways after that tour. According to Mick Woodmansey, the split came about after the band members got into an argument with David Bowie and manager Tony Defries about their pay. Mike Garson, who was the new keyboardist for the band, asked Woodmansey if he was going to buy the Lamborghini he was eying in a magazine. Woodmansey told Garson how little he was actually making and was shocked to find out that Garson was already making three times that amount, which led to the confrontation. The Spiders were able to renegotiate their pay but the fight permanently damaged relations between the Spiders, Bowie and Defries.

The Spiders From Mars went on to record without Bowie, releasing Spiders From Mars in 1976. Needless to say, this LP did not have the same impact as Ziggy Stardust, nor did Mick Ronson’s solo albums. Still, Mick Ronson exercised a strong influence over subsequent generations of guitarists. According to Steve Taylor,

Ronson was responsible for a large part of the arranging that went into the early Bowie albums, and for the influence of these albums on musicians to come. The singer may addressed themes of destruction, apocalypse and nihilism in his lyrics and performance, which provided a new angle for rock writing, especially on an album like Diamond Dogs which was based on George Orwell’s 1984, but it was Ronson’s guitar style that inspired the next generation of bands. Virtually every punk guitarist, from Johnny Thunders to Steve Jones and Mick Jones, owes something to Ronson. Bowie used Ronson’s departure as a starting point for his own music experimentation.” (A to X of Alternative Music, p. 45)

After parting with the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie discarded the Ziggy Stardust character and entered a long period of influential musical experimentation.

The image of spiders from Mars has popped up in a variety of places. Not surprisingly, this image was used in science fiction of the 1950s. The spider in Earth vs. The Spider may have been from Mars, but the spider’s origins were never explained in the movie—in fact, this movie left a lot unexplained. Teenagers find a gigantic spider, and then an exterminator uses a ridiculous amount of DDT to kill it. For whatever reason, they then dump the spider’s body in the high school gym where a local rock and roll combo is playing. While the kids are all digging the music, the crazy sounds rouse the spider from the dead.  Of course this movie got the MST3K treatment.

 

In The Angry Red Planet, four astronauts travel to Mars and do battle with a large spider-like monster. In his encyclopedic reference book of 1950s sci-fi films, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren describes this creature as a “graceful/awkward, almost surrealistic bat-rat-spider martian monster.” The strange visual effects in this movie were the result of “Cinemagic,” which never caught on, apparently.

 

The image of spiders from Mars was also used to great effect in a couple of radio science fiction shows from the 1950s. In “A Veteran Comes Home,” an episode of the radio science fiction series 2000 Plus, a soldier returns from a war on Mars and is unable to communicate the horrors of war to his young son. This show, which first aired on July 5, 1950, is clearly a reference to World War II and the difficulties faced by returning GIs. In a flashback we get a sense of the traumatizing effects of his wartime experience. The returning soldier remembers, among other things, fearsome Martian spiders that brought a painful death.

“A Veteran Comes Home” (2000 Plus, originally broadcast July 5, 1950)

A different perspective is given in “The Martian Death March”, which was first aired on January 14, 1951, as an episode of Dimension X, and later remade as an episode of X Minus One on September 8, 1955. The death march referenced in the title is not the infamous Bataan Death March from World War II, but rather the Trail of Tears, where Native Americans were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830s. That is, human colonizers on Mars force beleaguered martian spiders to relocate. One man comes to their defense and is regarded as crazy by the rest of the humans on Mars. His message is that all living creatures are our brothers, even something as alien as spiders from Mars.

“The Martian Death March” (Dimension X, originally broadcast January 14, 1951)

More recent references to spiders from Mars have come in video games, as a couple of online video games used this image in different ways. In Spiders of Mars, the spiders are the antagonists. You have to defend Stonehenge from invading “Zombie-Martian-Spider-Robots.” In my hapless attempts to play this game, the spiders from Mars overran Stonehenge (which somehow renders Earth defenseless) within a matter of seconds each time. A better (and more provocatively named) game is the Adult Swim online game Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars. “The name came first,” explains creator Anna Anthropy, and she explains that it took her some time and effort to come up with a game worthy of the name. In this game you are the spider queen and you have to subdue your foes with your web. If you don’t have the patience to play this game all the way out, and don’t mind watching others play video games, a YouTube video shows a complete play of the game in all its 8-bit glory.

The phrase “Spiders from Mars” has an entry in the Urban Dictionary and in recent years the phrase “X and the Spiders from Mars” has itself become a trope. This phrase is employed for a variety of purposes, but usually to convey a feeling of not belonging or of being alienated. The image of spiders from Mars has been used in a variety of ways, from photo exhibits to plays to comic books. Though David Bowie has long since left this persona behind, he continues to be identified with it. An endangered species of spider was named after David Bowie in an effort to raise awareness about endangered species.

Requiem for Detroit?

Requiem for Detroit? is a documentary by Julian Temple produced for the BBC in 2010 that documents the decline of the Motor City. The picture of Detroit this documentary presents is bleak, to put it mildly. A “darkly cautionary tale for the entire industrialized world,” Requiem for Detroit? focuses on the devastating impact that the decline of automobile manufacturing has had on this city. The film devotes a great deal of attention to Detroit’s industrial ruins, which are extensive. Bill Shea, a reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, criticizes Requiem for Detroit? as an ideologically driven, left-wing critique of consumerism that uses sensational imagery to make Detroit look like “the end of civilization” but ignoring investment in large-scale projects in the city that has occurred in recent years. He dismisses the film as “ruin porn goes hardcore.” Still, given how easy it was for Julien Temple to find scenes of devastation in Detroit, such criticisms sound desperate.

Julian Temple is best known for music related films, particularly The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle(1979) and The Filth and the Fury (2000), both about the Sex Pistols. The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was told primarily from Malcolm McLaren’s perspective and indulged much of the mythology that had arisen around the band. The Filth and the Fury, by contrast, gave the surviving members of the band the opportunity to tell the story from their perspective. The Filth and the Fury went some way toward dismantling the Sex Pistols’ mythology, but the band members were interviewed in silhouette, allowing the audience to maintain an image of the band as still being teenage upstarts. Requiem for Detroit? can be seen as something of an extension of the sort of documentary filmmaking evident in The Filth and the Fury. Where The Filth and the Fury placed the Sex Pistols’ music in the social and economic context of their times, Requiem for Detroit? uses music extensively to talk about the social conditions brought about by Detroit’s economic decline. One particularly effective technique Julien Temple employs in Requiem for Detroit? is projecting video, including many musical performances, onto Detroit’s ruins, contrasting the vitality of the music that has come out of Detroit with the decayed phsyical environment that remains.

Detroit’s ruins have been well documented. Forgotten Detroit provides pictures of abandoned theaters, office buildings, hotels, and other buildings around the city. You can even take a virtual tour of Detroit’s ruins. A collection of photography by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre that captures the strange beauty of decaying structures of the industrial era was published in 2011.

Michigan Central Station, as shown on the cover of The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Equally shocking are the areas of the city that have been abandoned and lost most of their housing. Requiem for Detroit? only briefly cover areas such as those around St. Cyril’s, now the St. Cyrl Parish Urban Prairie and Herman Gardens, which have little urban character left. The wholesale clearance of housing has left these areas utterly empty. Requiem for Detroit? devotes some time at the end of the film to people who are trying to use abandoned parts of the city for agriculture. Though their efforts to reinvent the city are presented as a ray of hope for Detroit, given what Requiem for Detroit?has presented in the preceding hour, it doesn’t leave the viewer with much of a sense of hope, particularly given the contrast between the small scale of these agricultural efforts and the immense scale of the industrial devastation.

A couple of the commentators in Requiem for Detroit? mention population declines in the city. I looked at historical census figures and found that among cities with peak populations of greater than 50,000 the largest population decline was not in Detroit but in Highland Park, Michigan, on Detroit’s northern border. That city peaked at 52,939 in 1930 and has been losing population ever since. The population of Highland Park in the 2010 census was 11,176, more than a 75% decline from its peak population, as mentioned by artist Lowell Boileau in Requiem for Detroit? Among large cities (peak populations of more than 500,000), five have declined to less than 50% of their peak populations–all five of which are Rust Belt cities. Detroit is on the list, of course, but it is second to St. Louis (the other three are Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh). St. Louis peaked at 856,796 and the population is now 319,294, a decline of 62.7%. Detroit peaked at 1,849,569 in 1950, but by 2010 the population had dropped by 61.4% to 713,777. The scale of the decline is greater in Detroit, however, and according to the Census Bureau’s most recent estimates (as of July 1, 2011) Detroit is continuing to lose population at a rate higher than any of the cities listed above.

But is the glass 61.4% empty or is it 38.6% full? A more hopeful response to Detroit’s woes is from techno artist Robert Hood. His 2012 album Motor: Nighttime World 3 was inspired by Requiem for Detroit? and many of the tracks make reference to the film. Here is “Slow Motion Katrina,” a phrase used by Lowell Boileau in the opening sequence of Requiem for Detroit?

Robert Hood, who was born and raised in Detroit, holds great hope for that city. In an interview with 5 Magazine, he asserts that the residents of Detroit “are resilient, resourceful people.” He concludes the album with a track called “Time to Rebuild.”

A similar viewpoint is expressed in the 2010 documentary Detroit Lives, which takes issue with the way Detroit is portrayed in Requiem for Detroit? The 30-minute documentary, hosted by Johnny Knoxville in a surprisingly stunt-free performance, focuses on the creative community in Detroit. Where others see abandonment and blight, artists and entrepreneurs in Detroit see opportunities to remake the city for the better. Featured prominently are Ko Melina and Zach Weedon of the garage rock band The Dirtbombs.

Mellotron Sounds

A highly specialized record guide is the wonderful Planet Mellotron, devoted to cataloging every appearance of the Mellotron in recorded music. The Mellotron, the forerunner of digital samplers, is a keyboard instrument where each key plays an eight-second tape loop of a pre-recorded sound, such as strings, cello, flute or an eight-voice choir. The idea for a musical instrument playing tapes by using a keyboard dates back to 1948 when Harry Chamberlin patented and began selling the Chamberlin. In the early 1960s a company in the UK began producing the Mellotron (melody + electronics = mellotron), an instrument that has been used widely in popular music. For a thoroughgoing history of the Mellotron, check out Streetly Electronics. To hear the individual sounds of a Mellotron, check out the Mellotron Listening Room at Mellotron.com.

Though expensive, the Mellotron became a popular instrument in psychedelic recordings in the late 1960s (most notably by the Beatles on “Strawberry Fields Forever”), and played a major role in the progressive rock genre in the 1970s. In fact, the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock calls the Mellotron “The quintessential prog rock keyboard instrument.” The Mellotron went out of favor in the 1980s with the advent of cheaper digital synthesizers, but it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years, including Mellofest and a documentary film about the Mellotron called Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie.

Planet Mellotron appears to be the labor of love of one person, Andy Thompson, whose ambition is to provide a comprehensive list of every appearance of a Mellotron in recorded music (Thompson acknowledges that his quest is “Madness. Utter Madness.”), and his website is loaded with fun-to-read reviews. Thompson rates albums on two scales: a five-star scale for the quality of the music and a five-T scale for the “Mellotronness” of the music. When I first discovered Planet Mellotron, I picked out some of my favorites and compiled the following Cloudcast:

Mellotron Sounds by Dead Man on Mixcloud

I have discovered one Mellotron track that doesn’t seem to be on Planet Mellotron, the wonderfully trippy “Fire! Fire!” by My Brother the Wind (2011). The Mellotron begins more than 10 minutes into the track.

Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements

Here’s a well made documentary about The Replacements called Color Me Obsessed.

Back in the day, when I lived in the Twin Cities, I saw The Replacements play several times. I would also see them around town occasionally. This movie reminded me of how I had wanted to say something to the band members–tell them how great they were–but when I had the opportunity I came up empty, I’m sorry to say. Around the time the Tim came out I was coming out of the Washburn public library in south Minneapolis when Paul Westerberg rode up on a bicycle. I looked at him trying to think of something to say but I looked away when we made eye contact.

Not long after that I saw Bob Stinson in Shinder’s at 8th and Hennepin. Shinder’s is gone now, and last week on a trip to Minneapolis I passed by 8th and Hennepin when I was driving around with a friend. Downtown Minneapolis is a dynamic place and the Shinder’s location has been transformed. While it existed Shinder’s was one of the coolest places in Minneapolis. It was more than a little scuzzy, but that only added to its appeal. In the days before the Internet Shinder’s was where you could go to get newspapers and magazines from all over the world. Shinder’s also had a particularly large porn section. I remember seeing Bob Stinson walk out of the porn section with a copy of Shaved magazine. I ended up in line behind him and he was very courteous and friendly, as I recall. Again, I wanted to say something to him but I was at a loss for words, though for somewhat different reasons this time.

Color Me Obsessed does an excellent job not only of placing The Replacements in the context of their time and place, but also in discussing their transcendent qualities. The film features interviews with a wide range of musicians, critics and fans and is so well edited that it took me a while to realize that no Replacements music is used in the film. At times during the film the interviewees articulate many of the same feelings I had–and still have–about this band, things I wish I could have expressed to the band members during those chance encounters.

Cocksucker Blues

The 2010 reissue of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street came in a variety of packages. I bought the Deluxe Edition with the disc full of bonus tracks, as that struck me as much less of a gouge than the ridiculously expensive “Super Deluxe Edition that also included LPs and a DVD.  I almost went for the Super Deluxe Edition because I saw “Cocksucker Blues” among the titles on that release. I thought at first that the Rolling Stones were finally going to release the track the Rolling Stones recorded in 1970 to one-up Decca Records.  The Rolling Stones were obligated to provide one last single to Decca, so they recorded a deliberately obscene track [LYRICS] for this purpose. Predictably, Decca passed on it. Looking closer, I noticed that “Cocksucker Blues” was on the DVD, so I thought that it contained Robert Frank’s documentary film of the Stones’ 1972 tour entitled Cocksucker Blues. Unfortunately, the DVD included in the Super Deluxe Edition of Exile on Main Street contains only clips from that film. So “Cocksucker Blues,” the song and the film, have yet to have a genuine release. Of course, the internet being what it is, it only takes a little searching to find the song and the movie is on The Pirate Bay, if you’re so inclined.

Robert Frank provided the cover photo “Tattoo Parlor” for Exile on Main Street. He had gained some notoriety with his 1959 book of candid photographs of life in the United States entitled The Americans. The book was not well received at the time of its publication, but its reputation has grown immensely over the years. In his book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Fred Kaplan points to the publication of The Americans as being a key event in a year when so many cultural conventions were being challenged. Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans, as the book shared a sensibility with the Beat generation, not to mention that Robert Frank had compiled his photographs through a long road trip across the United States. For the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Americans, the book was reprinted in a Deluxe Edition. An exhibit of Robert Frank’s photography called Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans was held at the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the book.

After The Americans was published, Robert Frank focused primarily on filmmaking. He had made a number of films before turning his camera on the Rolling Stones in 1972. Robert Frank explained his relationship with the Rolling Stones in this way,

I made a record cover for them, and Mick Jagger sort of liked me. They called me up in Nova Scotia. I said to them, “That’s the camera I want.” They bought the camera, and they said, “You do the film. ” There was never any more talk about it. I just got paid, and they let me do whatever I wanted to, but it was the agreement that I would finish and give them the film. They have the say whether it’s going to come out or not.

Although Mick Jagger reportedly liked Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones blocked the release of the film. Perhaps it was because the Rolling Stones were shown engaging in a range of illegal activity in the movie, or perhaps it was because the film captured the alienation and isolation of the band so effectively. Whatever the reason, the dispute between the Rolling Stones and Robert Frank was resolved with a rather odd court ruling: Cocksucker Blues can only be shown when the director is in attendance. Given practical considerations, this ruling served as an effective ban on the film.

The 1977 book Photography Within the Humanities contains an interview with Robert Frank, and he had some interesting things to say about the Rolling Stones.

We went on tour with them in 1972. It’s pretty interesting to get to know somebody as powerful as Jagger, or that group. So much money, so much power. It’s sort of frightening. It’s a frightening film in that way. And if I could have shown what really went on, it would have been horrendous — not to be believed. The film is a pretty down-trip film. They weren’t too happy about it, but Jagger is very straight. He said, “You did the film, that’s the way you see it; although that’s not the way I see it, that’s not the way it really is.” I like him personally, and he’s quite an amazing guy. He has a fantastic head, and he’s really in control. They’re rough people to be with. You’ve got to keep up. If you can’t keep up, it’s too bad.

When asked if he mistrusted Mick Jagger, Robert Frank answered,

There are two images in my mind. On the one hand, I admire him because of his ability as a performer, his capability as an administrator of such a powerful business venture. But then on the other hand, it would be the same for a politician whom I would mistrust. In the end it would turn me off completely. I would have nothing to do with it, because in the end he would destroy me. Because I don’t play his game; I’m not in his class. All the personalities in that group are especially rough. They are hard on each other, they are completely without feeling for anyone around them. Anything goes to get the work going and keep it moving. And that’s a strong experience to go through — to see that, and how it works.

One last note on the influence of Robert Frank and Exile on Main Street.  John Van Hamersveld designed the cover for Exile on Main Street. He used the motif of Robert Frank’s cover photo and laid out images of the Rolling Stones in a “tear and paste” manner that has had a lasting influence. Van Hamersveld quoted John Lydon as saying that the style of punk was strongly influenced by Exile on Main Street, “The Stones’ Exile package set the image of punk in 1975 – we used that graphic feel to communicate our message graphically.”  In its influence on the Sex Pistols and punk generally, then, Exile on Main Street was a key proto-punk album.