Van Dyke Parks – “Song Cycle” (1968)

November 20, 2008 at 9:08 am (Reviews & Articles, Van Dyke Parks)

Jim Miller wrote this review for Rolling Stone (issue #6), Feb. 24, 1968. Van Dyke had recently gone off on his own, after working on the then-aborted Smile album with Brian Wilson. Song Cycle got great reviews but was a poor seller for Warner Bros. – I believe one of their worst selling albums of all time, if I’m not mistaken…


Rock music is finally becoming composed music, growing from Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach. Bacharach contributed a purely popular legacy while Spector with Jack Nitzsche remained in the rock mainstream; out of them grew the Beach Boys, with Pet Sounds remaining the greatest romantic statement in rock writing. The Beatles have never essentially participated in this field, theirs being ad hoc construction of sound, a field the Mothers have invaded, as well as remaining to rock what Kurt Weill was to the musical theater. Meanwhile Motown has always canned arrangements in metrically divided temporal space even more sophisticated than Spector; yet until now only the Mothers have broken away from song structure, the now being Van Dyke Parks, co-author of the last Beach Boy record of merit (“Heroes and Villains”), and now in charge of Song Cycle.
Van Dyke Parks may come to be considered the Gertrude Stein of the new pop music, for unlike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, his is not mass circulation music, in fact it approaches being an inaccessible lattice work of structured sound, which in itself is a major contribution to formalism in rock. In “The All-Golden” the possibility of sound as music within in the framework of form (and not à la Milton Babbit) comes through very clearly in several seconds of a train whistle that only slowly manifests itself as the train whistle it is; the record is full of such musical about-faces (such as the variations on “Donovan’s Colours”), from tack piano to balalaika to bomb (the possibility explored with the suggestive silence between “The All Golden” and “Van Dyke Parks”). Parks is a romantic in many ways, but his structure is strangely open, progressing across space much as George Shearing’s conceptions for guitar, vibes and piano.
Parks can’t really sing (not like Brian), so his voice is transfigured into taped mutations, becoming an integral part of his lush/noise compositional structure. Compared to an earlier, quite pretentious try at composed rock (Chad and Jeremy’s “Progress Suite”), Song Cycle presents us with the work of a creative genius. The album is hardly perfect, but familiarity breeds awe a what, for a first album, has been accomplished. If the Beatles pull themselves together, this may be their next stop in the breakaway from song form variations on a theme—significantly though, Van Dyke Parks is there first. Listening to Song Cycle may not bring love but it most certainly will bring music liberation.

Jim Miller

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“The Day After” (Nuclear Attack Segment – 1983)

November 20, 2008 at 1:28 am (Cinema, Life & Politics)

This frightening excerpt from the 1983 TV-movie The Day After (which aired exactly 25 years ago on this day) is of the nuclear attack scene (featuring John Lithgow at the beginning, and later Jason Robards). This was a very controversial movie at the time, as American TV had never produced a movie dealing with the effects of nuclear war and its terrifying aftermath of radiation sickness, burnt victims and general mass hysteria.
I remember watching this movie as a teenager, when it first came out. Yesterday, I found this clip and watched it again. The scene of the mushroom cloud (with Robards in his car) was exactly like I had remembered it. But it was also much more disturbing and depressing to watch now. There was some criticism at the time of the movie not being accurate enough, but this scene is very accurate. It literally shows what “hell on earth” would be like.
Watching this movie again, I realize that some of it seems kind of implausible. I don’t think Jason Robards’ character or the black soldier could have survived as long as they did, considering that they had been walking in the streets, breathing in tons of radiation fallout. They probably would have been immediately puking their brains up. Despite not going far enough in its depiction of the true horrors of the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, the movie still holds up though and is worth seeing. And the ending is very sad and poignant.     
This clip picks up right after both the United States and the Soviet Union have released nuclear missles towards one another and people begin panicking, not knowing what exactly is about to happen, but knowing the end may be near. Then of course, the nuclear explosion takes place (probably the first time ever shown to society) and the movie does a very good job with this aspect. It’s absolutely terrifying (and depressing) to watch.
The special effects still hold up (which is remarkable considering the era it was made and the fact that this was a made-for-TV movie), and even though ABC censors forced director Nicholas Meyer to tone down some of the more graphic scenes in the movie (burn victims & dead bodies), the message of how bad nuclear war would be still came through loud and clear enough. Meyer didn’t want the film to take political stands (hence not showing whether the United State or the Soviet Union had fired the first shot), but rather just spread the message and inform people of the horrors of nuclear war. He thought of the TV-film not as a movie, but as a gigantic public service announcement. His main goal was to reach an audience of at least 20 million people through the TV showing, which would spread his message across to a larger and wider audience. This was eventually achieved. Nearly 100 million Americans watched The Day After on its first broadcast, a record audience for a made-for-TV movie.
Anyhow, I posted this basically to remind people, that even though the Cold War officially “ended” back in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear war is still alive & well, and perhaps even worse than before. There are many more countries now with the capabilities of making nuclear bombs. And Russia is still a very real threat. It’s definitely a frightening world we live in these days.
It was said that then-President Reagan became depressed after watching this movie and began to rethink his approach to the arms race, which was reaching absurd levels at the time. Later, this film was shown in the Soviet Union and apparently had an effect on the Soviet government as well.
The Day After received one of the largest promotional campaigns prior to its broadcast. Commercials aired several months in advance, ABC distributed half a million “viewer’s guides,” which discussed the dangers of nuclear war and prepared the viewer for the graphic scenes of mushroom clouds and radiation burn victims. Discussion groups were also formed nationwide. Some schools required their students to watch it as a homework assignment and discuss it the next morning in class, while others encouraged parents not to allow their children to view the film at all.
ABC also aired a live and very heated debate at the time, hosted by Ted Koppel, featuring respected scientist Carl Sagan and conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr. Sagan argued against nuclear proliferation, while Buckley promoted the concept of nuclear deterrence. During the debate, Sagan discussed the concept of “nuclear winter” and made his famous analogy, equating the arms race to “two sworn enemies standing waist-deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five,” which about said it all.
In the 1980s, work conducted jointly by Western and Soviet scientists showed that for a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the climatic consequences, and indirect effects of the collapse of society, would be so severe that the ensuing nuclear winter, would produce famine for billions of people far from the target zones. A nuclear winter would consist of severely cold weather and reduced sunlight for a period of months or possibly years, caused by detonating large numbers of nuclear weapons.
I also highly recommend watching the 1984 BBC-TV movie Threads –  “immeasurably more terrifying than any fictional horror film ever produced, and arguably the most emotionally shattering piece of speculative fiction ever committed to celluloid.” It goes into much greater detail on the aspects of nuclear winter and radition sickness (as well as societal breakdown)  than The Day After (although I think The Day After has a slightly more impressive nuclear attack scene, in the way of special effects). It’s considered the greatest movie of it’s kind. And probably the bleakest movie ever made, I would think.
Also, the 1965 BBC-TV docudrama The War Game (which influenced Threads‘ documentary style). This 50-minute TV short was actually banned by the BBC from being shown at the time, due to its graphic and realistic nature. The government felt it would be too depressing and terrifying for the average citizen to see. It was eventually shown in art houses and colleges in the United States in the late 60s, as well as eventually being shown on BBC-TV in the mid-80s. It was the first of its kind to deal with the horrific aspects of nuclear war and still holds up today.
Watch any of these three movies though at your own peril. They are not for the feint of heart and will probably leave you depressed for a long time after. They are only really meant to be watched for educational purposes, as they are obviously not “entertaining.”     

Warning: This is a pretty horrifying depiction of what a nuclear explosion would be like.  

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