Lyn Jensen's Blog: Manga, Music, and Politics

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Location: Anaheim, California, United States

Regular contributor ("Carson City Limits" and other content) for Random Lengths (circulation 56,000) in San Pedro, CA, 2001-present. Manga reviewer: LA Alternative (circulation 150,000), 2005-2006. Some manga reviews also ran in NY Press around this time. Entertainment reporting: Music Connection (circulation 75,000), 1983-1906. Travel writing: Oakland Tribune (1998) and Life After 50 (2006). Other bylines: Goldmine, Star Hits, Los Angeles Reader, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press Telegram, Blade, BAM, Daily Breeze, LA Weekly. Specializations include community news reporting, writing reviews (book, theater, concert, film, music), copywriting, resumes, editing, travel writing, publicity, screenwriting, lecturing, and content development. Education: B. A. Theater Arts, UCLA. Post-grad work, Education, Chapman University.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

ROCK FOR CHOICE: Celebrating Roe V. Wade

Back around the twenty-second anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 1995, Rock for Choice (organized by Fund for a Feminist Majority) released a compilation album Spirit of '73 that was billed as "women of the nineties perform songs by women of the seventies." Unfortunately neither the material nor the artists were sufficiently vetted and the album was far from the cultural milestone it could've/should've been. 

Joan Jett was by far the biggest star Spirit of '73 managed to attract, and many of the song choices were "by women" only in the loosest sense. Many of them were composed and originally recorded by men--most obviously "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which has absolutely nothing to do with women, even when sung by Joan Baez.

It's past time for the mainstream recording industry to embrace and focus on women's issues--the way it constantly supports the movements for peace and the environment. Some industry mogul (or major recording artist) with authority and imagination needs to revive Rock for Choice and get it in Walmarts in Texas.  

Someone--maybe Beyonce or Gwen Stefani or Taylor Swift, maybe Jimmy Iovine or Randy Jackson or L. A. Reid--needs to assemble today's biggest female vocalists and assign them seventies' songs composed by and expressing the viewpoints of women. 

Here's my dream Rock for Choice compilation CD, 2016 edition:

1.  "I am Woman" (composed by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton), Beyonce
2.  "Mercedes Benz" (Janis Joplin), Pink
3.  "The Pill" (composed by Lorene Allen, Don McHan, and T. D. Bayless), Casey Musgraves.
4.  "From Me To You" (Janis Ian), Crystal Bowersox
6.  "Poetry Man" (Phoebe Snow), Christina Aguilera
7.  "Because the Night" (Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen), Gwen Stefani
8.   "Total Control" (Martha Davis, Luke Solomon, Jeff Jourard), Lorde
9.  "Landslide" (Stevie Nicks), Selena Gomez
10. "You've Got a Friend" (Carole King), Taylor Swift   
11.  "Barracuda" (Ann and Nancy Wilson), Katy Perry
12. "Diamonds and Rust" (Joan Baez), Tessanne Chin
10.  "I Will Always Love You" (Dolly Parton), Lady Gaga

For next Jan. 22 (coming in 2017) I'll suggest a companion Spirit of '73 that'll consist entirely of songs from '73 where male superstars may show their support for choice, too. 

What are your suggestions for songs and artists on a new Rock for Choice compilation? Contact me on Facebook or Twitter about it!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Japanese Rock: One OK Rock 35XXXV (Warner Bros. 2015)

One OK Rock recently became the first Japanese rock group to be signed and distributed by an American record company.  Warner Bros. has now released the quartet's American CD debut 35XXXV which may be purchased at retail or downloaded on iTunes. Featured tracks include "Cry Out," "Last Dance," and the single "Mighty Long Fall."

Songs on 35XXXV are in English, so there's no language barrier. Some offerings, such as the opening "3XXXV5," show a metal edge but overall the tone is quirky, particularly the techno-pop elements of "Paper Planes (and Hand Grenades)." Overall this album fits comfortably beside what's dominating American airplay and charts today.

Like abstract painters experimenting with color, One OK Rock shakes and stirs their musical influences into fresh sounds on 35XXXV. According to Wikipedia, One OK Rock's primary influence is Good Charlotte, but they also show traces of about a dozen other American rock artists including Linkin Park, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Sleeping With Sirens, and Blink-182.

See www.oneokrock.com for the English and Japanese versions of the band's official Web site. Here you'll find links to download their hit Japanese recordings, a band history, videos, and upcoming concert dates. There's an American date, March 19, 2016, at the Self Help Fest in San Bernardino, California.

One OK Rock represents the latest in a wave of Japanese rock (a. k. a. J-rock) that's becoming more and more common on the twenty-first-century American cultural scene.  Popular Japanese rockers including L'Arc en Ciel, Vamps, Versailles, Apple Strung, Kalafina, Mono, Yoshiki and his X Japan, and Sunset Drive have been recently getting American press and launching American tours, overcoming cultural barriers that may have previously blocked commercial success.  Indeed we could be seeing the first ripples of what may eventually turn into a "Japanese Invasion" comparable to music's British invasions of the sixties and eighties.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Ten "Best Pictures" That Had No Business Winning the Oscar

Not just the "worst" Best Pictures ever, but winners that showed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be motivated--at least at the moment--by an agenda not related to honoring excellence in motion pictures. We're listing ten "Best Pictures" that honestly had no business winning an Oscar for Best Picture. This list isn't so much about which "Best Pictures" are "worst," it's more about wondering what the Academy was collectively thinking during their worst lapses of judgement.

10. The Return of the King. Sorry, J. R. R. Tolkien fans but you understand what I'm getting at, right? The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, and the movies made from the books aren't meant to stand alone. The first two Ring movies didn't win Best Picture, so what's so special about this one? The Academy needs to address how to handle multi-part serial films that are becoming so prevalent--they just don't compare to films meant to be a stand-alone work. (Maybe the Academy can borrow the Spanish telenovela and develop a new category, "cinenovela" for these multi-part franchises.)
Each book in the Tolkien trilogy could sustain three movies on its own, the way The Hobbit was brought to the screen. As magnificent as the Lord trilogy is, there's plenty of opening for an even grander interpretation.

9. Forrest Gump.  One of only two or three Best Pictures I've found sitting through to be a chore and a bore. By the end I didn't care about any woman, baby, shrimp boat or box of chocolates. The Academy (and fans) must've fallen in love with the gimmicks. (Look, Tom Hanks is shaking hands with JFK!)
Underneath the special effects is a demeaning moral morass of a plot, prettied up with platitudes about the power of prayer. The film was widely criticized for stereotyping the disabled and trivializing racism. (All a bullied cripple has to do is run fast enough, and the braces fall off and he's cured. Ending racism's as simple has handing a lady her book.) Then we're all supposed to feel so sorry for the woman and the baby. Hasn't any Hollywood screenwriter ever heard of birth control?

8. The Titanic.   As a Best Picture, Titanic isn't disastrous. It looked good, made fans of special effects happy, and gave cinema two unforgettable characters--Jack and Rose. Except the story of the Titanic is one of history's greatest disasters, and turning it into a disastrous backdrop for a disastrous love affair is more suited to a YA graphic novel than a Best Picture. The combined acting of Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart can't redeem the character of Rose. (What woman throws expensive jewelry away?)
If only the Academy had the courage to look past the box office and honor The Full Monty.

7. The Deer Hunter.  Movies about Vietnam were trendy in 1978 and the 51st Oscars were hyped as a contest between Jane Fonda's sentimental romance, Coming Home, and the edgier Deer Hunter. So the Academy chose what, in retrospect, looks suspiciously like Heaven's Gate set in Vietnam. It has actually nothing to do with Vietnam, or our veterans, or much of anything else. It's demeaning to our Vietnam experience and offensive to those who demand that movies make sense.
The most enduring movie of the 51st Oscar season had nothing to do with Vietnam--it was The Buddy Holly Story.

6. Crash.  Being branded forever as the film that robbed Brokeback Mountain doesn't make the ideal legacy for any Best Picture. All the Oscar nominees that season dealt with major moral issues: terrorism, racism, homosexuality, crime and free speech. How Crash sneaked into the nominations and then into top place no one's ever satisfactorily explained. The movie opened to mixed reviews and has a lower Rotten Tomatoes rating than its competitors. Not only was Brokeback Mountain a better movie, so were Munich, Capote, and Good Night and Good Luck.

5. Oliver! Ads said, "Freely adapted from Dickens' Oliver Twist," meaning, of course, any resemblance between this musical film and the classic novel is pure coincidence. Why did the Academy honor it? Maybe because Hollywood was, at the time, under pressure to provide family entertainment. Oliver! was sold as a nice family musical. It was about a child thief, and a woman is beaten to death protecting him, among other pleasantries of Dickensian slum life, but it was a nice family musical.
For comparison here's some of what the 41st Oscars considered and rejected: The Lion in Winter, Funny Girl, Romeo and Juliet, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Subject Was Roses, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4. The English Patient.  The first two hours are a slimy soap opera, while the final forty-five minutes turn into the kind of flakey WWII spy drama that Mad Magazine was making fun of when that war was barely over. Juliette Binoche beat Lauren Bacall for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, likely because she could cry on cue while assisting the suicide of the English patient. (Lady, if you feel that bad, just don't do it, OK?)
Hiding in the minor award categories for the 69th Academy Awards was the far more deserving Ghosts of Mississippi.

3. Slumdog Millionaire. Honoring this piece of poverty/torture porn as Best Picture in 2008 allowed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to feel good about global poverty without actually doing anything about it. Slumdog isn't a movie, it's more like extended product placement for the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' So that's the solution for global poverty--answer a few trivial questions and win a game show. Milk and Frost/Nixon were trampled by the Academy's slumdog-mania.

2. The Godfather, Part II.  You know when you see a film and there's a scene or two tacked onto the end, a "then what happens" that we don't really need to know? The Godfather, Part II (and The Godfather, Part III) are just several hours of "and then what happens" that we don't really need to know after the end of the original Godfather. Then they're mashed up with a few flashbacks that look like unnecessary outtakes from the original movie--and as if that weren't enough, it beat Chinatown.

1. Terms of Endearment.  Biggest clinker-stinker ever to get away with winning the Oscar for Best Picture, marketed as some kind of breakthrough for female-driven films in Hollywood. It actually insults women, being nothing but a third-rate afternoon soap opera pawned off as a feature film with A-list stars. Shirley MacLaine won't have anything to do with drunken womanizing Jack Nicholson next door--except she does because it's in the script. Meanwhile audiences are supposed to be appalled that the daughter (Debra Winger) is married (boo-hoo) to an assistant professor (boo-hoo) and moves to (boo-hoo) Iowa (boo-hoo) where she conveniently dies (gets her out of Iowa anyway). The Academy passed over The Right Stuff for this?

Friday, October 30, 2015

The State of Record Retail in the Nineties

by Lyn Jensen

Just how does music get to the consumer anyway? Circa 1990 I xompared how the major and minor record retailers did it. The round-up didn't get published but it now serves as a look back at a time and place where actual record stores controlled what music got to fans.

One strange thing:  the woman who answered the phone at Sam Goody (the receptionist, I assume) always said the company couldn't do press interviews because "we are in voluntary cooperation with the FCC right now." Or was it the IRS? Every time I called I got the same scripted-sounding answer. Neither the FCC nor anyone else--including the IRS--has ever been able to explain to me WTF she was talking about.  I don't think she knew, either.

In the record retail business, California is an especially competitive market with three of the largest chains in the country--Music Plus, Tower, and Wherehouse--doing most of their business in this state. There's also California newcomer Sam Goody, with few stores in this state but which may be the largest retailer nationwide. Sales aren't limited to the giant chains either--smaller chains and independents still have chances on the retail scene. Such a high level of competition can effect what sells, so anyone looking to sell music would do well to understand how the record chains move product.

To find out how the record chains sell music, we talked to spokespersons for the big three chains. One major difference between the companies is that Tower runs a decentralized operation with each individual store being largely responsible for buying. That means merchandising is spread between more than 50 domestic retail outlets--and there are British and Japanese stores, too. Company president Russ Solomon granted us an overall view.

Wherehouse and Music Plus, on the other hand, each run a centralized operation, with most buying decisions made at the corporate level.

Music Plus is the number-one retail chain in terms of sheer physical space--meaning most square feet, according to Angie Diehl, their Director of Marketing.

Wherehouse is California's largest retail chain in volume, according to Jim Dobbs, the company's VP of Sales Merchandise.

Chains as tiny as Rhino play a part in selling records, too. To get an idea of how a smaller chain compares to the giants, we spoke to David Crouch, the manager of the Rhino Records store in Westwood. He says his store is a joint venture with Rhino Records. There is one other store that's linked to the record company--in New Paltz, New York. "The Rhino in Claremont (California) is no longer connected with us except that we let them use our name," he says.

"We buy from major distributors, we buy from the guy that just walks in the door," says Tower's Solomon. "Small labels must be in a specialized category to compete."

All chains, however, buy primarily from the six major distributors, who correspond roughly to the major labels:  CEMA, EMI, Columbia, BMG, MCA, and Polygram. Solomon estimates these six are responsible for about 85% of all in-store product.

Explains Crouch, "CEMA is the direct promoter for a group of labels--Capitol, EMI, Chrysalis, Enigma, and Rhino. If we were going to order the new Duran Duran record, we'd deal with them. If we wanted to order a new Warner Bros. or Elektra release, we'd deal with them."

Diehl advises that if you're a tiny label in need of distribution, go to "the Big Six," since the six don't limit themselves to the major labels. Labels that consist of "just you and the other two guys in the band," may deal with major retailers, she adds, insisting, "We buy [almost] anything."

"Talk to retailers about who's a good indy distributor" if you're a small indy label, adds Dobbs.

For all the retail chains, the remainder of in-store product is supplied almost entirely by independent distributors. Direct-from-manufacturer buys also happen. Dobbs, for example, estimates that Wherehouse deals with about thirty independent distributors, and for some product--such as Windham Hill--they deal directly with the manufacturer.

Sub-distributors are still another possibility for putting product in retail outlets, and has two different meanings. Diehl explains that sometimes the term refers to a deal between a minor label and a major distributor, such as between Virgin and WEA.

Other times, Diehl adds, sub-distributors may also be called "one-stops." Chains do little business with one-stops, but independent dealers usually get merchandise from them.

Wherehouse is the only retailer interviewed that uses the term "mark-up" to differentiate between wholesale price and retail price. Dobbs explains, "The ticket price is computed on the suggested list price," depending on how good a value was negotiated at wholesale.

Diehl of Music Plus counters, "Mark-up is an oxymoron," because the retail price tends to be calculated below the suggested list price.

Crouch gives this example, "The Red Hot Chili Peppers have a list price of $9.98. We might sell them for less than list price but the company will still want to see the same amount" for themselves, typically $5-6 per record.

List prices involve different factors. Tower's Solomon points out an artist's contract may determine whether the record is given a high or mid-range price when newly offered. "Budget" is the term usually used for older records.

All retailers describe the same basic contractual agreement with distributors. Crouch uses 50 Red Hot Chili Peppers records as an example. The store buys those 50 Peppers records and then returns what doesn't sell. There's no time limit for a return. Only a certain percentage (commonly 10-20%) can be returned without penalty.

That means the distributor will grant a certain amount of credit for that first 10-20% of returns, and then levy a penalty--grant less credit--for a greater number of returns. Wherehouse's Dobbs calls this the break-even point.

The chains rarely use consignment as a retail agreement. Crouch explains, "No one wants to have fifty records sitting around waiting to be sold on consignment." However, small independent stores may take consignments they can get product in their stores.

"A distributor, if one title dies, he has other titles [unlike] a guy with just one record," asserts Solomon of Tower. "Either get a distributor or go on consignment."

One thing all the chains agree on is that consumers play a major role in determining what records get pushed and why. "If it doesn't sell, we don't stock it," says Dobbs of Wherehouse.

Solomon maintains stores take a conservative approach even if the artist is getting hyped. "Buy very lightly, especially a new artist like Sinead O'Connor, and hope it does well, until sales justify you buying more," he says. "When you see in-store displays, you don't know if that means high sales, you don't know what the record company decided to push."

Diehl looks at promotion another way, "A, we can push on our own, B, push for a company, or C, together." She claims the record companies will often mandate promotion for new breaking artists. When Chrysallis wanted to break Slaughter, she recalls, they gave her company videos and pictures and even brought the rock band over to meet the retailer.

"Picks are not handed down. Logic dictates what's going to sell," says Crouch. "Sales dictate what records get pushed," whether it's Michael Jackson's or Sonic Youth's. He sums up, "Some labels promote their releases better than others but any label will help you promote a record."






Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Something Changed My Life: Doug Fieger and Exude at Radio City, 11/26/1982

Strange how life happens:  I liked the Knack until they broke up in late '81 or early '82 and then I checked out lead singer Doug Fieger's brief attempt to launch a solo career.  He played Radio City in Anaheim in 1982 and I went to see him.  His opening act was Exude, who I've boosted, publicized, worked for, and been a fan of ever since.  Frank Rogala remains one of my best friends to this day, and it would never have happened if I didn't get the Knack in the first place. 
I wrote a review of the Radio City show that never got published, but I'm sharing it here for the little corner of rock history it chronicles:

Whether you like the Knack depends on whether on not you like Doug Fieger, his talent and just plain chutzpah were what made the group.  (BTW his name's pronounced with a hard g.) As every LA rock scene-watcher knows by now, the Knack is no longer together, leading some to cheer but the band's fans to cry. 
Knack fans will now have to be content with Doug Fieger as a solo act, and to find out what that means, I saw him, with his five backing musicians called Taking Chances, at Radio City, Anaheim, Friday, Nov. 26 [1982].
Fieger insists he's doing things different now (hence, the name Taking Chances).  This new band has a synthesizer and two (two!) drummers, but the only thing they do is muddle the rhythms and obscure Fieger's normally strong clear voice.  The instantly recognizable beat of "My Sharona" isn't so instantly recognizable anymore. The entire set could have benefitted from sparser arrangements.
The best was last, a run of songs that began with "She's So Selfish," then the intriging choice of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Have to Serve Somebody," a solo refrain of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and finally "Sharona" with the familiar (to Knack fans) "Give it to me now" routine that spins off from the instrumental break.
What Fieger's really taking chances with is not so much his music but his public image. With his new career phase he can quit being the powerpop superstar with the smirk and just begin anew as a mainstream rock singer. He has some of Mick Jagger's showmanship, along with some of punk's edge. His powerful stage presence can make an hour seem like a minute. He plays his guitar often and moves much. The pants are shock-red, the tee shirt's torn, one Beatle-like high-heeled boot sports chains and the frontman wears stage rouge and eyeliner. He could in some ways be called the Mick Jagger of the LA powerpop scene.
Against that level of headline act, the supporting acts, local bands called Exude and Stage One, couldn't compete.  Exude in particular needs a better break. Fieger wasn't the only singer suffering from muddy vocals. Exude's Frank Rogala had the same problem. Neither group's vocals allowed us to get into their songs.

Actually I found Frank to be a very distinctive singer in his own right, and thus began a major part of my rock 'n' roll life that has no ending.