Thursday, December 29, 2016

Happy Birthday, Andy Summers!

On Saturday, December 31, 2016, Andy Summers – my favorite guitarist and musician of all time – turns 74 years old.

I first became acquainted with the music of Summers in 1983 at the age of 10 in a Catholic elementary school classroom when I heard a hypnotic and futuristic-sounding pop/rock song emanating from the radio of Candy, my substitute teacher. When I asked what the song was and who recorded it, I was promptly informed that it was “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police. I was instantly hooked, so much so that that Christmas, my parents got me a vinyl copy of Synchronicity, The Police’s fifth and final studio album and one of the biggest hits of the year. The Police have since remained my favorite rock band of all time.

Summers was the guitarist for the mega-popular group, who were active in the late 1970s and early 1980s and reunited for a 30th anniversary tour in 2007 and 2008. Being a good decade older than his bandmates Sting and Stewart Copeland, Summers began his professional recording career in the early 1960s, playing for Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band (which later became the psychedelic but short-lived Dantalian’s Chariot), Eric Burdon’s New Animals, and Soft Machine. After formally studying guitar at Northridge University in California from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Summers returned to England and plied his trade as a session guitarist for Joan Armatrading, Neil Sedaka, Kevin Coyne, and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord before achieving monumental success and international stardom with The Police.

After the dissolution of The Police in the early 1980s, Summers scored some Hollywood films (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Weekend at Bernie’s) and recorded one rock vocal album before establishing himself as an acclaimed and accomplished contemporary instrumental guitarist across a variety of styles, including jazz, fusion, New Age, and world music.

I was privileged to interview Summers by telephone in Fall 2000 for the January 2001 issue of DirecTV: The Guide. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Summers posted a notice of the interview in the news section of his Web site. Later, I met Summers in person during his book tour in Fall 2006, just a few months before The Police reunited for a 30th anniversary reunion tour, which I was fortunate to attend twice in August of 2007 and 2008.

For a good overview of Summers’ solo work, I highly recommend the following albums: Mysterious Barricades, A Windham Hill Retrospective, Synaesthesia, and The X Tracks. My personal favorite Summers albums are Mysterious Barricades, The Golden Wire, World Gone Strange, Synaesthesia, Earth + Sky, Fundamental (with Fernanda Takai), Circus Hero (with his rock band Circa Zero), and Metal Dog.

--Raj Manoharan

Happy Birthday, Michael Nesmith!

On Friday, December 30, 2016, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees (the one with the green wool hat) turns 74 years old.

Of all of The Monkees, Nesmith has had the most prolific and successful solo career. He pioneered the country-rock music format in the early to mid-1970s, founded the music and video label Pacific Arts, and basically created the concept of MTV. In addition to producing films and music videos, Nesmith also won the very first Grammy Award for Best Home Video for Elephant Parts, which later led to NBC’s short-lived Television Parts. In an interesting side note, Nesmith’s mother invented liquid paper and sold it to Gillette for a substantial fortune, which Nesmith inherited.

For a good overview of Nesmith’s solo music career, I recommend The Older Stuff, The Newer Stuff, Tropical Campfire’s, Live at the Britt Festival, Rays, and Movies of the Mind.

More information about Nesmith is available on his Web site at www.videoranch.com.

The following are links to my reviews of Nesmith's 2013 live tour and the subsequent live CD.





--Raj Manoharan

Debbie Reynolds (1932-2016)

First the princess, then her queen.

True Hollywood royalty, both.

--Raj Manoharan

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

To me, she's royalty.”

Yes, she certainly is that.”

May the Force be with you.

--Raj Manoharan

Alan Thicke (1947-2016)

Farewell to one of America's favorite 1980s TV dads.

--Raj Manoharan

Andrew Sachs (1930-2016)

Que?

--Raj Manoharan

Florence Henderson (1934-2016)

Farewell to the quintessential American TV mom of my generation.

--Raj Manoharan

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sting’s 57th and 9th Ninth in Billboard 200 Debut

The title of Sting’s latest album has proven to be partly prescient as 57th and 9th debuts in ninth place on the Billboard 200 chart for the week of December 3.

The new release marks the veteran superstar’s return to his rock roots, with a stripped down sound consisting primarily of bass and vocals (Sting), guitars (Dominic Miller, Lyle Workman), and drums (Vinnie Colaiuta, Josh Freese). The record also features some piano and organ, as well as additional guitars and vocals by Tex-Mex band The Last Bandoleros.

This is Sting’s first collection of original pop material in over a decade and his best since the 1990s.

--Raj Manoharan

Robert Vaughn (1932-2016)

The Thank You for Teenage Cave Man, U.N.C.L.E. in the 1960s and Fifteen Years Later, Superman III, The A-Team, and Pootie Tang Affair.”

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, November 14, 2016

57th and 9th (2016), by Sting

CD Fan Review

Not only is 57th and 9th Sting's first pop/rock album in over a decade, but it is also his first release as a senior citizen. (Sting is 65?! When did that happen?!)

In addition, this is Sting's first pop/rock record without synthesizers and horns.

So, aside from some piano and organ, as well as some extra instrumentation and orchestration on a deluxe edition bonus track, this is basically a guitar, bass, and drums affair, resulting in a different sound from Sting, or at least one we haven't heard from him in a while.

Featuring Sting's typically excellent bass work and standout performances from guitarists Dominic Miller and Lyle Workman and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Josh Freese (as well as some guitars and vocals from The Last Bandoleros), the songs have the feel of a mix of early raw Police, garage band rock, college radio, and '90s alt rock.

A couple of tunes even sound like modern Monkees songs. Yes, that's right. The Monkees. My two favorite tracks, “One Fine Day” and “Pretty Young Soldier,” could fit perfectly on The Monkees' 2016 album, Good Times! Sting would make a fine Monkee.

The most punk raucous song here, “Petrol Head,” is a mash-up of The Police's “Demolition Man” and Sting's “Love Is Stronger Than Justice.”

The record also features the requisite “slow” Sting songs, and while they're not quite on the level of his past pensive masterpieces (you know what those are), they're instant classics and worthy additions to his introspective repertoire.

Sting's voice here has a grit and grizzle indicative of his age, and although the album lacks the ethereal quality of his synthesizers and—for the most part—his multi-tracked multi-register vocals, Sting still sounds like Sting. And if you're a Sting fan, that's all that matters.

57th and 9th ultimately shapes up as Sting's best collection of original pop material since the 1990s.

Now if only Sting would combine his songwriting, bass playing, and singing on this album with Andy Summers' songwriting and guitar work on Circa Zero's Circus Hero (2014), and Stewart Copeland joined in on drums …


--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Soul Cages (1991), by Sting

CD Retro Fan Review

While reevaluating all of Sting’s original studio albums in the run-up to his new release, 57th and 9th (November 11), I was amazed to rediscover the brilliance of his third solo album from a quarter century ago, The Soul Cages.

His first and second records, The Dream of the Blue Turtles and Nothing Like the Sun, have always held special places in my heart, especially since they came out when I was in middle school and high school, respectively.

But I had forgotten what an amazing and incredible album The Soul Cages is, with its pensive, brooding, and dark elegance and eloquence.

The title is no happenstance coincidence, as the record is the most personal and soul-searching of Sting’s post-Police works. It is also his most rocking album (when it rocks), with outstanding musicianship from his band, including Dominic Miller at his best in his first outing as Sting’s go-to guitarist.

In terms of thematic concepts and sonic style, The Soul Cages, which represents what a sixth original Police studio album might very well have sounded like, is without a doubt Sting’s unparalleled solo masterpiece.

As an intriguing afterthought, the three solo Police albums that are the most similar in terms of sound and feel are The Equalizer & Other Cliffhangers (1988) by Stewart Copeland, The Golden Wire (1989) by Andy Summers, and The Soul Cages (1991) by Sting.

--Raj Manoharan

A Quick Sting Primer in Time for His New Album

If you want to catch up quickly on Police vocalist/bassist Sting’s solo career before the November 11 release of his new album, 57th and 9th, here are a few suggestions.

Gordon Matthew Sumner’s best greatest hits collection is his first one, Fields of Gold from 1994. That’s because the majority of his most popular and enjoyable songs come from his first decade as an individual artist. This is where you’ll find such gems as “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free,” “Fortress Around Your Heart,” “They Dance Alone,” and “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.” The album also includes the exclusive bonus tracks “When We Dance” and “This Cowboy Song.” Plus, Police guitarist Andy Summers lends his atmospheric six-string savvy to “Be Still My Beating Heart.”

Next up is The Very Best of Sting & The Police from 1997. This disc mixes Sting’s solo hits with those from his Police heyday, giving listeners the opportunity to compare and contrast the sonic styles of the two eras. The album also includes “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot” from Sting’s 1996 record, Mercury Falling, which, by the way, is his best original CD of the last 20 years.

The Very Best of Sting & The Police was “rereleased” in 2002, this time switching out a couple of Police tracks for different ones and updating the selection to include the singles “Brand New Day” and “Desert Rose” from Sting’s 1999 album, Brand New Day.

Finally, Symphonicities (2010) provides a unique perspective on Sting’s solo and Police hits, favorites, and rarities, with new versions featuring Sting backed by the rich, luxurious sound of a full orchestra.

I’ll see you on November 11 at 57th and 9th.

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Leopard Son (1996), by Stewart Copeland

CD Retro Fan Review

Although Police founder and drummer Stewart Copeland played all the instruments himself on his 1980s albums and soundtracks, he began to open up his sound quite a bit in the 1990s by bringing other musicians into the mix. Such is the case with his beautiful and majestic score to the popular nature documentary, The Leopard Son.

For this session, Copeland enlists his Animal Logic bandmate Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, Michael Thompson on guitars, and Judd Miller on ethnic wind instruments, allowing the composer to focus on piano, drums, and percussion.

Copeland also ditches the synthesizers for real strings and horns courtesy of The Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael T. Andreas.

The immense talents of Stewart Copeland and his players result in an eclectic convergence of pop, rock, jazz, and classical music that, combined with the roars of big cats as well as a bit of classic Police-style reggae, conveys both the sweet intimacy and the fierce ferocity of life in the African wilderness.

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Equalizer & Other Cliffhangers (1988), by Stewart Copeland

CD Retro Fan Review

While his motion picture composing career was taking off, Police founder and drummer Stewart Copeland got to prove his chops further in homes across America with his hard-hitting, pulse-pounding score to the hit 1980s television series, The Equalizer.

Performed entirely by Copeland on guitar, bass, keyboards, synthesizers, drums, and percussion, the soundtrack is dark, ominous, and propulsive, making it a perfect accompaniment to scenes of hired avenger Robert McCall (Edward Woodward) delivering brutal beat-downs to New York City’s criminal element.

The music is somewhat similar to Jan Hammer’s groundbreaking score to the Miami Vice TV series, and the title theme and several other tunes here could have worked easily on that show. Copeland’s unique composing style is also kind of a cross between Hammer and Danny Elfman (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, The Simpsons). Perhaps this is due to the fact that Copeland, Hammer, and Elfman have backgrounds in pop, rock, and jazz fusion rather than classical music.

Of course, given Copeland’s primary instrumental vocation, the music is understandably much heavier on the drums and the percussion, and enjoyably so.

Highlights include “Screaming Lord Cole and the Commanches,” “The Equalizer Busy Equalizing,” and “Archie David in Overtime.”

This album is definitely a must-have for fans of The Equalizer and Stewart Copeland, as well as anyone who is interested in an alternative and highly stylized musical approach to 1980s prime-time television.

--Raj Manoharan

The Rhythmatist (1985), by Stewart Copeland

CD Retro Fan Review

I can listen to “Africa” by Toto and Graceland by Paul Simon without thinking of Africa. When I listen to The Rhythmatist by Police founder and drummer Stewart Copeland, I can’t help but think of nothing but Africa.

After beginning his prolific motion picture and television composing career with Rumble Fish, Copeland (The Equalizer, Wall Street, Rapa Nui) really hit it out of the park with The Rhythmatist, his score to the docudrama of the same name.

For this unique project, Copeland recorded the traditional chants and rallying cries of various indigenous tribes, as well as the noises of birds, bees, and numerous other beasts roaming the “dark” continent.

Over these native sounds, Copeland lays down guitars, bass, keyboards, and synthesizers (all played by himself), and especially his signature drums, percussion, and hi-hat.

The result is a colorful blend of exotic pop/rock instrumentals and songs featuring African lyrics and vocals by Ray Lema, plus symphonic, cinematic themes that convey the epic grandness of the vast African landscape. Copeland also talks and kind of sings on “Serengeti Long Walk” and the Copeland-Lema duet “African Dream,” giving both tracks the feel of cheeky but highly informative and immersive audio travelogues.

Obviously due to my interest in The Police, this was my first real introduction to world music, and what Stewart Copeland accomplished here remains as potent and impactful an intercultural force as when I heard it initially upon its release way back in 1985.

--Raj Manoharan

Thursday, October 13, 2016

30th Anniversary of Andy Summers’ Down and Out in Beverly Hills Soundtrack

CD Retro Fan Review

In between his experimental collaborations with fellow guitarist Robert Fripp and the launch of his own solo recording career, Police guitarist Andy Summers had gone Hollywood by contributing to and scoring a few motion picture soundtracks, the most notable of them being Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

The first half of the album features famous pop/rock songs by artists such as David Lee Roth, Little Richard, and Randy Newman.

The rest of the tracks comprise the original score composed and performed by Summers and consisting primarily of guitars and synthesizers.

The music is vintage mid-1980s Summers and actually serves as a sonic bridge from his work with Fripp to his first instrumental solo album, 1988’s Mysterious Barricades. One of the tunes is even a retread of one of his Fripp duets, but without Fripp.

The real stunner here, though, is the main theme, which is reprised throughout in different ways. The jazzy, swinging title track features a laidback, mellow acoustic guitar melody over lush acoustic guitar chords, accentuated by keyboards, brushes, and saxophone. It sets the mood for the film’s whimsical comic pathos and also serves as a preview of Summers’ later solo work.

Regardless of whether or not you have seen and like the movie, if you’re a true-blue fan of Andy Summers’ guitar work, this is basically the unofficial start and an essential component of his solo discography.

--Raj Manoharan

The Return of Sting

After years of fiddling around with the lute, bringing the plight of shipbuilders from his native English town of Newcastle to Broadway, and reforming a little side project called The Police for a low-key, two-year world reunion tour, Gordon Matthew Sumner (aka Sting) returns to the pop/rock scene with 57th and 9th, his first proper album in the genre in well over a decade.

Slated for release on November 11, the record has the 64-year-old singer/bassist accompanied by his longtime bandmates, guitarist Dominic Miller and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Colaiuta also played drums on one of Police guitarist Andy Summers’ solo albums). Guests include guitarist Lyle Workman, San Antonio-based Tex Mex band The Last Bandoleros, and bassist Josh Freese.

The album title and cover photo seem to suggest that the recording was made in New York City, at least partially. Or maybe it was rehearsed there. Sting might even make a concert appearance or few in the Big Apple to promote and support the new material.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. If you’re a Sting fan, the album could be either a victory celebration or a consolation prize depending on whether your guy or gal wins or loses a few days earlier.

--Raj Manoharan

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Force Awakens on Starz

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, the best Star Wars movie since the original original trilogy, makes its television debut at 9 p.m. this Saturday, September 10, 2016, on all Starz channels.

Whoever said you can’t go home again needs to talk to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. As the grizzled veteran space pilot, smuggler, and gunslinger says in the film:

Chewie, we’re home.”

May the Force awaken in you this weekend.

--Raj Manoharan

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Happy 50th Anniversary, Star Trek!

Fifty years ago on September 8, 1966, the Federation Starship U.S.S. Enterprise (Starfleet designation NCC-1701) set out on a five-year mission that initially lasted only three years but ultimately went on to encompass an animated television series, 13 motion pictures, five more television series, and countless fan conventions, games, toys, books, and all manner of merchandising.

The Decades channel celebrates the momentous occasion with an all-day marathon on September 8 of Star Trek specials from previous anniversaries and milestone events.

And Me TV presents the original series' first broadcast episode, “The Man Trap,” in the show's usual 9 p.m. timeslot this Saturday, followed by a special Svengoolie screening of the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” in which the only familiar faces are Leonard Nimoy as Spock and Majel Barrett (Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's future wife and Nurse/Doctor Christine Chapel in the original series and movies) as the Enterprise's female executive officer, Number One. And on the same night Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens makes its television debut on all Starz channels!

I have been a Trekker, Trekkie, and all manner of nomenclature associated with dedicated devotees of Star Trek for 36 years, and I shall happily continue to be.

Not only have I had the pleasure of being a fan of the franchise for all those years, but I have also had the honor and privilege of professionally interviewing several of its prominent representatives – original series stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and their Star Trek VI costar Kim Catrall, and Next Generation-ers Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, and John de Lancie. I also had the good fortune to meet Shatner, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig in person. (And I saw Gates McFadden and Alexander Siddig – Siddig El Fadil at the time – at a special Star Trek exhibition at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.)

May Star Trek continue to live long and prosper (as it currently does with the original series on Me TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation on BBC America, theatrical feature films, and the forthcoming CBS television series, Star Trek: Discovery).

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, September 5, 2016

30 Years of Andy Summers' Solo Recording Career

Although Andy Summers' eponymous recording career outside The Police goes back another four years to include his highly acclaimed collaborations with fellow guitarist Robert Fripp – I Advance Masked (1982) and Bewitched (1984) – it was three decades ago during the summer of 1986 that Summers recorded his first solo album, XYZ, named after the middle initials of his three children.

Originally called Quark and engineered and recorded by Devo member Bob Casale at Devo Studios, XYZ is the only album on which Summers sings lead vocals throughout. It also marks the beginning of Summers' collaboration with Genesis engineer and producer David Hentschel, who coproduced and played keyboards on XYZ as well as Summers' next three albums and coproduced another Summers album a few years later.

While XYZ pales in comparison to Summers' virtuosic instrumental albums, the drone-like songs are hypnotically entrancing, the monotonous singing style is uniquely eclectic and serves the songs well, and the guitar work is excellent as always. The exceptionally upbeat, gospel-tinged song “Nowhere” features Summers' most rocking and soulful guitar solo ever, the best of his entire recording career thus far.

I say that as someone who has been a fan of Summers since The Police's final studio album, Synchronicity, in 1983 – when Summers was 40 and I was 10 – and who has some of Summers' key recordings from the 1960s with Zoot Money's Big Roll Band, Dantalion's Chariot, and Eric Burdon and the New Animals.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of my favorite Andy Summers album, World Gone Strange, his only release to be recorded entirely in New York City, and the 20th anniversary of Synaesthesia, Summers' last album to be coproduced by David Hentschel – thus far.

Incidentally, it is also the 10th anniversary of Summers' autobiography, One Train Later. I had the pleasure of meeting Summers in person and getting his autograph during his book tour stop at my alma mater, New York University, for which I received a special invite as an alumnus.

Six years before that, I was fortunate and privileged enough to be able to interview Summers by telephone for a sidebar accompanying my main interview with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in DirecTV: The Guide. Summers even listed our interview on his Web site's news section for a while.

And of course, I have seen Summers perform live several times over the years, first in an acoustic guitar duet with John Etheridge (in 1994 at The Bottom Line in the heart of NYU), then solo with his own various backing bands, and finally with The Police twice during their 2007-2008 reunion tour.

--Raj Manoharan

Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Thanks for the laughs.

Nobody did it Wilder.

--Raj Manoharan

John McLaughlin (1927-2016)

A class act, and one of a kind.

Never will there be another.

Bye-bye!

--Raj Manoharan

Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

Thank you for the childhood (and adulthood) memories.

You will be us always.

--Raj Manoharan

Friday, July 8, 2016

IMAGINE

John Lennon is my least favorite Beatle, and I’m not a John Lennon fan by any stretch of the imagination.

But “Imagine” is one of the best songs of all time, and it is my favorite John Lennon song.

So, in the spirit of John Lennon, just IMAGINE.

--Raj Manoharan

Noel Neill (1920-2016)

For comic book movie and TV fans, you were our first, Noel.

Thank you for your gift.

Please give our regards to Kirk, George, John, Bob, and Jack.

Up, up, and away!

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, June 26, 2016

30 Years of Bruce Hornsby

It's hard for me to believe, but Bruce Hornsby first arrived on the music scene three decades ago in 1986.
I became an instant fan with the release of Bruce Hornsby and the Range's debut album, The Way It Is. The top two singles, the title track and “Mandolin Rain,” played constantly on the radio and on MTV. The group also won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1986.

Hornsby and his band's music isn't your typical '80s sythesizer pop. Rather, it is timeless, led by Hornsby's graceful piano playing and his band's tasteful soft-rock groove. And unlike Billy Joel's bluesy, soulful piano playing, Hornsby's style gravitates more towards jazz and new age, often compared to Keith Jarrett and giving Hornsby's pop a more elegant flavor.

Even the group's videos were not your typical racy or avant-garde MTV fare, simply featuring exquisite cinematography of Hornsby and his band playing in the studio.

I distinctly remember buying Hornsby's first album on vinyl from a record shop on the top floor of the Bergen Mall, the second one on vinyl from a suburban Sears where my family went to get a portrait photograph taken, and the third and final Range album on cassette from a music store on the underground level of the Garden State Plaza.

As I listened to these albums as a teenager (and attended a 1993 Hornsby concert in Holmdel, New Jersey, with my brother), I never could have imagined that I would get to interview Hornsby nearly two decades later, which I did by telephone in 2002. I then met him in person strictly as a fan five years later at a free outdoor concert and CD signing at J&R Music in New York City. When my turn came to get autographs and talk to him and his fellow musicians at the time, I quoted an obscure and hilarious line from one of his solo albums, and he immediately started singing the exact song with that phrase, which I had also gotten him to do on the phone five years earlier. His bass player, legendary jazz musician Christian McBride, was laughing and shaking his head. Hornsby's people also got a good laugh out of it. In addition to meeting and getting autographs from Hornsby and McBride, I also got to meet and get an autograph from Hornsby's drummer at the time, Jack DeJohnette, also a legendary jazz musician.

Hornsby and his current band, the Noisemakers, just released their latest album, Rehab Reunion, this summer. This is the first album on which Hornsby doesn't play piano, instead concentrating solely on hammered dulcimer.

But it all began with Bruce Hornsby and the Range, 30 years ago.

--Raj Manoharan
 
 

Myself When I Am Real

When Andy Summers' take on the Charles Mingus composition first came out as part of Summers' 2000 Mingus tribute album Peggy's Blue Skylight, I wasn't completely taken by it due to its length and its very classical bent. In fact, I passed it over frequently for the more jazz-rock fusion numbers on the record.

I have just recently been listening to the nearly 10-minute epic several times, and I now find it to be a masterpiece of intricate beauty. It is basically Summers playing restrained electric guitar both over and behind a vast expanse of alternatively prominent and subdued violins and cellos.

It is a grandly ambitious piece that fulfills its lofty aspirations, and in the end it is quite something to behold.

--Raj Manoharan

How Casual Fans Can Celebrate 50 Years of Monkees Music

There has never been a better time to be a fan of The Monkees than now, as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary with a new hit album and a nationwide tour that's currently underway.

However, if you don't have the time or the budget for all of their recorded output over the last five decades, here's a quick primer on how to enjoy 50 years of Monkees music in just four or five albums.

Greatest Hits (1995)

This 20-track collection provides a good overview of The Monkees' most popular songs from their 1960s heyday, including the trippy “Porpoise Song” theme from their 1968 psychedelic cult theatrical feature film Head. The album also contains the 1986 reunion hit single “That Was Then, This Is Now” from the successful record Then and Now … The Best of the Monkees, as well as “Heart and Soul,” the lead single off the 1987 reunion album Pool It!

An alternative to Greatest Hits is …

The Best of the Monkees (2003)

This album contains five more songs than Greatest Hits, as well as a few different tracks. It also comes with a second bonus disc of karaoke versions of five numbers. Although you get slightly more Monkees music than the previous collection, the main drawback here is that the set is strictly limited to the 1960s, with no cuts from later decades. And some fans will like it more just for that.

Pool It! (1987)

This is The Monkees' first reunion album, minus Michael Nesmith (who was preoccupied at the time with his Pacific Arts music and video production company). It continues the Monkees tradition of other songwriters and musicians composing and performing most of the music. Although it was released during the height of The Monkees' popular comeback tour, it failed to chart. Nevertheless, it is a perfect modernization of The Monkees' sound, with the vocal talents of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork blending seamlessly with 1980s synth pop.

Justus (1996)

After a nearly 30-year absence, Nesmith finally rejoins Dolenz, Jones, and Tork, and as the title explicitly states, it's Justthem. In addition to singing, all four Monkees wrote, produced, and performed all the music on the album. And the results are remarkable, if not fully appreciated. The Monkees prove they have true garage band grit, but they also exhibit polish and finesse when they need to. This is also the best showcase of Nesmith's impressive guitar skills.

Good Times! (2016)

Twenty years after producing and releasing Justus, The Monkees are back in a big way, celebrating their 50th anniversary with a new tour and this sparkling new album, which debuted at number one on Amazon and number fourteen on The Billboard 200. Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith record new songs and complete unfinished old ones, with the now dearly departed Jones making an appearance via a vintage recording of a Neil Diamond composition. The album marks a return to form, with other songwriters and musicians composing and performing most of the music. The best part is that Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith, now in their 70s, sound as youthful and energetic as ever.
 
The Monkees magic continues!
 
--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)

To me, the new cast of the Star Trek movies from 2009 on could never recapture or replace the magic of the original cast.

However, they have created their own new magic, and Anton Yelchin especially brought an infectious charm and good-natured comic relief to his interpretation of the Enterprising navigator and sometime engineer Pavel Chekov.

Hearing this afternoon of his untimely accidental death was truly horrific and shocking, especially just one month before the release of his third big-screen outing as Chekov, by which time he had completely grown into the role and made it unmistakably his own.

May Anton Yelchin's spirit live long and prosper, and peace and love to his family, friends, and loved ones.

--Raj Manoharan

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Monkees’ Good Times! Debuts at Number 14 on The Billboard 200

Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith (and Davy Jones courtesy of an archival recording from the 1960s) are having a grand old time on the music charts, as their new album Good Times! debuts at number 14 on The Billboard 200.

This is the group’s highest position on that chart since Then and Now … The Best of the Monkees reached number 24 three decades ago in 1986.

With a hit album and a nationwide tour currently underway, The Monkees’ 50th anniversary is definitely in full swing.

Let the Good Times! roll!

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

From a nonsports fan, in remembrance of an American and world icon.

--Raj Manoharan

Burt Kwouk (1930-2016)

The “original” Cato.

--Raj Manoharan

Alan Young (1920-2016)

A horse is a horse, of course, of course – unless it’s Mister Ed.
 
A duck is a duck, of course, of course (yes, I know it doesn’t rhyme) – unless it’s Scrooge McDuck.
 
--Raj Manoharan

Friday, June 3, 2016

CD (Fan) Review – Good Times! by The Monkees

The Monkees’ first new album of the 21st century is finally here, and it sets the tone perfectly for the celebration of the group’s 50th anniversary.

Gone are the 1980s gloss rock of Pool It! and the 1990s garage band grit of Justus (both of which are very fine albums and are grossly and unfairly underrated).

In their place is a bright, sparkling, feel-good sound that recalls the musical and cultural zeitgeist of the band’s 1960s heyday, circa 2016.

Produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, the record combines newly completed tracks from the 1960s (allowing the late Davy Jones to appear on Neil Diamond’s very 60s-ish “Love to Love”) with new songs written by surviving Monkees members Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith, as well as Schlesinger and members of Weezer, Death Cab for Cutie, and Oasis.

Even though Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith are now in their 70s, they sound as vibrant as they did 20, 30, and 50 years ago. And they get to really showcase their voices to great effect, especially as this time around most of the instrumentation is handled by other musicians.

Vocal/song highlights include Dolenz on the exuberant “Gotta Give It Time,” Jones on the aforementioned “Love to Love,” Nesmith on the poetic “I Know What I Know” (although the version on Nesmith's Videoranch Web site is far superior), Tork on the folksy “I Wasn't Born to Follow,” and Nesmith and Dolenz on both the beautiful “Me and Magdalena” (especially the deluxe album version) and the Heady, psychedelic “Birth of an Accidental Hipster.”

I like Good Times! very much, as well as Pool It! and Justus. They are all equally excellent albums in their own right, each with its unique strengths and infectious idiosyncrasies.

Good Times! is the ultimate 50th anniversary gift from the remaining Monkees to each other, to Davy Jones, and to the fans.

--Raj Manoharan

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

New Monkees Album Debuts at Number One on Amazon

The Monkees' 50th anniversary has gotten off to a fabulous start, with their concert tour underway and their just-released new album Good Times! debuting as the number one bestselling CD on Amazon, ahead of new releases by other veteran artists including Eric Clapton and Paul Simon and today's hottest superstars such as Blake Shelton, Beyonce, and Adele, and even the original cast recording of runaway Broadway success Hamilton.

This is significant, because not only is Good Times! The Monkees' first new album of the 21st century, but it is also their first album released well into the age of the Internet and the era of digital music. The group's previous album, Justus, came out 20 years ago at the dawn of the World Wide Web and well before the universal availability of online music, failing to make an impact beyond the interest of hardcore fans.

The initial success of Good Times! hints at what could possibly be The Monkees' biggest comeback since their blockbuster resurgence in the 1980s (which, incidentally, didn't extend to their 1987 album Pool It!).

Not bad for a band that's been around for five decades, released only three albums in the last 30 years, and whose members are all in their 70s.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Michael Nesmith’s Guitar Playing on The Monkees Album Justus

If anyone thinks that The Monkees have no musical abilities beyond being pretty faces and pretty voices, their 1996 reunion album Justus should put those doubts to rest.

The record is their first written, produced, and performed entirely by themselves, and they function as an extremely tight unit. All four of them do a great job on their instruments – Micky Dolenz on drums, Davy Jones on percussion, Peter Tork on bass and keyboards, and Michael Nesmith on guitars.

The real revelation here is Nesmith, who, aside from playing acoustic rhythm guitar as a solo singer-songwriter and leaving the fancy stuff to his backing bands, has dabbled over the years as an electric guitarist.

But here, in addition to playing acoustic rhythm guitar, Nesmith totally lets loose with rip-roaring electric guitar leads, riffs, and solos, proving himself adept in a variety of styles from pop and rock to progressive and new wave.

Listening to Nesmith grind his axe on Justus makes me wish that he had done more guitar-based instrumentals on his own albums, or even entire guitar-based instrumental albums, especially since as a vocalist he’s more prone to generally laid-back, country-style crooning (although he can really belt out some tunes when he wants to).

Heck, Nesmith still has time to record at least one guitar-based instrumental album if he so desires, as he is still very agile and active at this stage of his life.

But Justus will have to do for now – as it has for the last 20 years – as the one definitive showcase of what Nesmith is really capable of as a six- (and more)-string shredder.

Plus, Justus is a very good Monkees album.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Retro (Fan) Review – Justus, by The Monkees

Justus, an original studio album that was released during The Monkees’ 30th anniversary in 1996, is the first album to feature The Monkees writing, producing, and performing all the songs entirely by themselves, and the last album to feature all four Monkees.

The Monkees have always been famously maligned for not writing their own songs and playing their own instruments on the majority of their hit recordings in the 1960s. Still, The Monkees at one point outsold both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined, proving that music lovers and buyers connect above all else with the songs themselves and the singers who sing them.

On Justus, The Monkees prove that in addition to being fine singers, they are also excellent musicians. In fact, they’re so good that it’s easy to forget that they’re playing the instruments in addition to singing. Micky Dolenz plays drums, Davy Jones plays percussion, Peter Tork plays bass and keyboards, and Michael Nesmith (the predominant holdout from various Monkees reunions throughout the years, and the one who looks the least like his former self) plays guitars.

My favorite songs on the album are Nesmith’s progressive, rollicking redo of his Monkees tune “Circle Sky,” the Nesmith-penned rant rocker “Admiral Mike” with aggressive, in-your-face vocals by Dolenz, the Dolenz hard rocker “Regional Girl,” Tork’s Cars-like “Run Away From Life” sung by Jones and featuring an ‘80s-style synthesizer solo, Tork’s haunting “I Believe You,” Dolenz’s self-reliance and self-empowerment ode “It’s My Life,” and Jones’s album-closing anthem “It’s Not Too Late.”

In light of the fact that Davy Jones is the first of The Monkees to leave us, it’s especially fitting that his are the last lead vocals on the album, especially on a song that could be as much about the relationship of The Monkees as it is about the relationship of a couple.

Because of this, no matter what the remaining Monkees do or don’t do, they will never have any unfinished business.

Monkees forever!

--Raj Manoharan

Personal Monkees Tidbit: I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Tork in the early 1990s at a local cable television station where I had been working. Tork was the latest in a long line of vintage celebrity guests on the poor man’s David Letterman show that was produced there. I was working master control for the station (I had nothing to do with the show at the time), and Tork came in asking for a bandage for his nicked finger. (I had actually met him earlier in the evening and gotten his autograph on a Monkees LP.) I don’t remember whether I was able to give him a bandage or had to refer him somewhere else, but, ah, what a memory! --RM

CD Retro (Fan) Review – Pool It! by The Monkees

Contrary to “popular” and “critical” opinion, The Monkees’ first reunion album is a refreshing, reassuring, and welcome evolution of The Monkees’ classic 1960s sound into the late 1980s.

With a couple of exceptions, the songs are written and performed by other composers and musicians, with Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork providing lead vocals (Michael Nesmith didn’t participate in this reunion but would rejoin his comrades nine years later).

Even though the “boys” are now in their 40s on this recording, they have never sounded better, especially with the hint of maturation in their voices.

The music is basically light synth pop, with Dolenz handling the more upbeat tracks, Jones the more sentimental tunes (and one pop-rocker), and Tork the wacky Cars-like stuff.

While all the songs are enjoyable, the one real standout is the dark and chilling “Midnight” sung by Dolenz. It sounds like something right out of the Miami Vice television series, and it would be a shame if it never played on the show as it would have been perfect for it.

As for the overall musicianship of the backing band, the sprightly guitar work of Mark Christian sounds as slick and high-tech now as it did when I first heard the album as a 14-year-old teenager back in 1987.

If you like The Monkees and 1980s pop music, ignore the naysayers and enjoy the warmth of this nostalgic and contemporary collection that’s full of heart and soul.

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, May 2, 2016

CD (Fan) Review – Lotus, by Mike Moreno

The fifth album from Mike Moreno marks a major step forward in the artist's evolution as one of the most formidable and significant guitarists in the contemporary jazz scene.

Moreno's original compositions are grand and ambitious, with lyrical acoustic guitar musings that exude dreamy sentiment and smart electric guitar lines that bop with elegant finesse.

A touch of grace is provided by Aaron Parks on piano, and bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Eric Harland keep things moving with deep-rooted rhythmic grooves and highly charged percussion.

While the band functions as a tight unit, Moreno clearly shines as both a soloist and a leader, continually honing and refining his craft as he takes it to new heights of innovation and virtuosity.

Listening to Moreno's brilliant guitar playing is nothing short of ecstatic joy.

This CD will be very much appreciated by those who enjoy high-end jazz guitar and those who dig thoughtful instrumental music that is inspiring and resonant.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, April 23, 2016

CD Retro (Fan) Review – The Best of George Harrison, by George Harrison

This album is both a fantastic introduction to and an efficient overview of Harrison’s early career as part of the Fab Four and as a budding solo artist.

As others have pointed out, yes, the Beatles songs included on this record are available on several Beatles collections. However, this is the only place you’ll find many if not all of Harrison’s Beatles compositions by themselves in one place, and there is nowhere better to have them than on his first greatest hits compilation.

First of all, the seven Beatles tunes here are quintessential George Harrison songs, written and performed by him with backup by his fellow Beatles. Second, their inclusion facilitates a true appreciation of Harrison’s artistic evolution from writing and performing his songs with the Beatles to writing and performing his songs with his own band.

What sets Harrison apart from the other Beatles and makes him unique as a singer-songwriter are his folksy, soul-searching compositions and his humble, earnest vocals.

As a guitarist, Harrison is very underrated and underappreciated, and aside from a couple of guitar parts played by other Beatles and Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton, the album is flush with Harrison’s intricate lead and rhythm guitar work.

The record also shows Harrison’s transition from a skillful and creative rock guitarist with the Beatles to slide guitar virtuoso, whose tight, soulful solos reinforce his melodies without being flashy or over the top.

Album highlights include Harrison Beatle classics “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (featuring Clapton on lead guitar) and early solo hits “My Sweet Lord,” “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” and “What Is Life.” Interestingly, “Here Comes the Sun” sounds more like Harrison’s later solo work on his own Dark Horse record label.

This is an excellent showcase of Harrison’s formative years, especially his metamorphosis from Quiet Beatle to enigmatic solo superstar.

--Raj Manoharan


Monday, April 18, 2016

Doris Roberts (1925-2016)

She was a mother, alright.

So long and farewell to one of the most famous and beloved television matriarchs of all time.

Here she comes, Frank!

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Monkees to Celebrate 50th Anniversary This Year with New Album and Tour

Hey, hey, they’re The Monkees, you never know where they’ll be found, so you’d better get ready, they may be comin’ to your town.

You heard that right. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the classic music/comedy TV series that birthed the “Prefab Four,” Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith are recording a new Monkees album called Good Times! (which is scheduled to be released on June 10).

In addition, Dolenz and Tork will hit the road for a Monkees tour from May through October.

Good Times! is the first new Monkees album in 20 years and the third Monkees reunion album in 29 years, following Pool It! from 1987 (featuring Dolenz, Tork, and the late Davy Jones) and Justus from 1996 (featuring all four Monkees).

--Raj Manoharan

Sir George Martin (1926-2016)

Of all the Fifth Beatles, you, Sir, were the classiest.

--Raj Manoharan

Friday, February 19, 2016

Happy 50th Anniversary, 1966!

1966 was a tremendous year for pop culture. Within the space of those 12 months, the world saw the debut of the Batman television series, as well as The Monkees and Star Trek.

Batman and The Monkees were phenomenal right off the “bat,” spawning both “Bat-mania” and “Monkee-mania.” Star Trek, on the other hand, didn’t get as much attention in its original 1966-1969 run on NBC, only becoming iconic years later.

1966 was also the year my mother immigrated to America, eventually becoming a legal resident and ultimately a citizen. The reason I bring this up is because although my mother’s arrival in America and the debuts of the aforementioned cultural phenomena both happening in 1966 were entirely coincidental, they are inherently connected.

My mother was definitely aware of Batman and The Monkees when they debuted and watched them when they were popular. She saw Star Trek after it ended in 1969 and began life anew in syndicated reruns. She would continue to enjoy all three in one form or another in the years since with her future family.

For example, we faithfully went to the cinema every two or three years in the 1980s and early 1990s to see the Star Trek movies starring the original 1960s TV series cast; we watched some of the modern Batman movies (although not directly connected to the ‘60s show) starting in 1989; and we enjoyed Monkees reruns in the 1980s and even recently attended a concert by Monkees member Michael Nesmith (http://www.monkees.net/michael-nesmith-review-live-at-bergen-pac-2013/).

In addition to being a fan, I have been privileged to have had professional connections to these three iconic properties.

When I was a master control operator at a local cable television station in the 1990s, I met Monkees member Peter Tork, who was a celebrity guest on The Rik Turner Show. He personally autographed a Monkees album for me, and later, he came in to the master control room and asked me for a bandage for his nicked finger. I don’t remember if I had a bandage on hand for him or had to refer him to someone else, but I’ll never forget him asking me. One of the Monkees asked me for a bandage!

As a cable/satellite magazine writer from 1996 to 2005, I got to interview Eartha Kitt, one of the actresses who played Catwoman on the Batman TV show. I also interviewed original Star Trek actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation cast members Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and LeVar Burton). All of the interviews were by telephone, of course, since I was on the East Coast.

All three shows/franchises have something big going on in 2016, their 50th anniversary year.

In news not specifically related to the 1960s TV series, the character of Batman, who’s been around for 77 years, will soon be seen in his first live-action, big-screen pairing with his DC Comics predecessor and label mate Superman, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which opens in theaters on March 25. The 50-year-old Batman TV show, meanwhile, airs at 6:30 p.m. on Me TV’s Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night.

Star Trek will also be beaming back into theaters on July 22 with Star Trek Beyond, the 13th Star Trek motion picture and the third feature film starring new actors as Kirk and his Enterprise crew. The original Star Trek series continues to air at 9:00 p.m. on Me TV’s Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night.

Finally, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork will record a new Monkees album called Good Times! (which is scheduled to be released on June 10) and will hit the road for a 50th anniversary Monkees tour from May through October. Michael Nesmith will not be a part of this tour as he is working on other projects, but one of his recent songs will be featured on the new album, and he might yet contribute some vocal and/or guitar parts as well. The Monkees airs on Antenna TV and IFC.

Happy Anniversary, 1966 (and to Batman, The Monkees, and Star Trek – and my mom)!

Good Times indeed!

--Raj Manoharan

George Gaynes (1917-2016)

My generation will always remember him for Punky Brewster and the Police Academy movies.

That alone makes him a pop culture and comedy giant.

Richard Mulligan (1932-2000) of Soap and Empty Nest kind of reminded me of George Gaynes, and vice versa.

Both were and will always remain comic geniuses.

--Raj Manoharan

Boy Wonder Goes Under: Johnny Duncan (1923-2016)

Johnny Duncan was the second of four actors (thus far) to play the Dark Knight's trusty teen sidekick in live action, in the 1949 15-chapter movie serial Batman and Robin.

Duncan was 92 years old. To provide some perspective on Duncan's longevity and how long ago Duncan played Robin, Jack Larson, who played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series, passed away last year at the age of 87.

Duncan's immediate successor, Burt Ward, who played Robin in the phenomenal 1960s Batman TV series, is 70 years old.

As one of the seminal superhero actors in the first decade of live-action comic book crusaders, Duncan will always have his place in the pantheon of onscreen costumed crime fighters.

Holy rest in peace, Robin!

Raj Manoharan