Welcome to 2021! The UK has just entered its third nationwide lockdown, the garden is covered with snow, and I’m viewing quite a bit more telly than I usually do. One thing I watched was a new film called Zappa which sparked some memories and caused me to ponder on the ever-changing state of entertainment.
In the mid-1970’s at the end of Christmas term our school voted on whether we would all watch a screening of Gunfight at the OK Corral or The Italian Job. Against the overwhelming majority I voted for Gunfight and experienced the dubious thrill of having my whole school year turn against me, “If we don’t get to see The Italian Job, because we lost by one chuffing vote, we’re coming to get you Shaw.”
My insignificant breeze of a vote, blowing against the raging typhoon of the masses, had no effect whatsoever and I watched The Italian Job along with everyone else. But I had to wonder – why did I do it? What is it that impels me to go against the grain like that? It appears there’s an impulse in me that balks at anything popular and instead leads me to find a place for myself on the margins:
While other boys were obsessed with dinosaurs, I was learning the names of penguins. At another time in my life, I devoured everything I could about the scientist Nikola Tesla. I took up ukulele at a time when it wasn’t even uncool enough to be cool. In fact, the instrument was seen as so pathetic, I might as well have announced I was self-identifying as a ballerina. When I bought my first uke my friend Dave declared, “Why would you play that? It doesn’t even sound good.” His words were my first major clue that ukulele was definitely for me!
Somewhere in the middle of all that I bought a book called The Encyclopedia of Rock. This cross-referenced volume contained all the important musical acts of the 50s, 60s and 70s (although, strangely, not the band Rush) and I bought it for the sole purpose of learning about bands that no-one had heard of just so I could be the only one who liked them. The cross-referencing system acted as a sort of low-grade internet where a member of one band would be linked to other bands and I’d then pore over those as well. In this way I discovered unheard of gems like Arlo Guthrie, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart and best of all Frank Zappa. Here was someone with a prodigious and insanely varied output of music that no-one in my world had heard of. And best of all he composed music that offended people. I saved up to buy his records and forced myself to listen until I liked them.
But the years have gone by and I’ve reached an age of self-examination where I find my image of uniqueness has crumbled around me. Those interests that I thought made me one-of-a-kind have all been embraced by the masses:
Instead of one of a handful of ukulele players I’m now one of millions, Tesla has a car named after him, Antarctica has become a holiday destination and penguin knowledge is ubiquitous – although, I’ve yet to meet anyone who knows that penguin egg-whites stay transparent when cooked (they never mention that in Happy Feet) – and now, thanks to a new film: Zappa by Alex Winter (of Bill and Ted fame), everyone is becoming a Frank Zappa aficionado too.
At 2hr 9min long, Zappa still only scratches the surface of the prolific and brilliant career of a workaholic who dedicated his life to composing music. Alex Winter gained access to the colossal archives of the Zappa family and has made a captivating and moving documentary that will appeal to non-fans as much as those already in the know.
One thing that did bother me about this film though was the fast editing during the music sequences. Apparently, I was being treated to “previously rare and unseen footage” but the images were flashed before my eyes so fast that I found them difficult to observe and assimilate. Each time I saw a musician in a live situation it cut quickly away to another image. So, I kept getting pictures of general musical activity without getting to see what a musician actually does.
Perhaps this is what some call eye-candy. But it gives me more of an ice-cream headache. I do wonder if this style of editing will last or if, like the overused synthesizers of the mid-80’s, it will eventually fade away to be replaced by more ‘natural’ effects. I’m guessing not. For better or for worse the general speed of film edits has increased over time and older movies, which were spellbinding thrill-rides in their day, now, to our modern eyes move laboriously along like bored elephants in a low budget zoo (the original Star Wars film comes to mind) And I hate to think how Gunfight at the OK Corral or The Italian Job would come across to teenagers now. Barely watchable I imagine.
Similarly, with live entertainment. Watch (Your Country)’s Got Talent or X-Factor and you see acts that grab the audience in the first few seconds but what you don’t see is how well they sustain after two hours. I doubt that older stars like, say, Bob Newhart, Barry Humphries or Billy Connolly would have done as well in these instant gratification formats.
I’ve long since realized that other people’s tastes are not the same as mine. And this poses a dilemma for an entertainer: should I give them what they want or give them what I want them to have? The fact that this is even a consideration explains why I’ve always been, and always will, be “quirky and niche”. I personally like those acts that are, what you might call, a slow-burn. And if I’m honest I think I am one of those too. My audiences often take several minutes before they settle in. It’s a bit like the TV series that you have to watch for a few episodes before you fully buy into the premise.
We can all ask that question in regards to ourselves. “Am I a flashy, quick attractor who has to learn to sustain their appeal? Or am I the slow-burn type: someone who can hold the attention but needs to bring in some early pizazz to get people interested in the first place?”
Either way it takes constant attention to know how to set the right tone in changing times.
Keep Smiling and Strumming!