Santa’s in the Victrola: Spooky

The male heir to the Zero to 180 fortune insisted that his father write a history piece centered around a nearly 100-year-old Christmas song that, for today’s generation, inspires apprehension and consternation — but was that the intent of Arthur A. Penn, the songwriter responsible for “Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph“?

Editorial comments from those old-timers at Archive.org show that the unsettling feelings evoked by this recording are actually a cross-generational phenomenon:

This is one of the more unusual of Edison’s records.  Listen to Santa’s sinister laugh he makes as he tries to sound fun, loving and kind.  The www.menloparkmuseum.com staff agrees — if we were kids, we’d run!

“Santa Claus Hides in Your Paragraph”     Harry Humphrey     1922

Rebecca from the Jolly Reindeer blog puts it another way:

An obvious indicator of how far we’ve come since the days of Edison is represented in the recordings themselves. While it’s no surprise that the sound quality has improved, it’s interesting to note one particular improvement as well:

Santa is less creepy!

In 2009, “Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph” made the #9 spot in ListVerse‘s Top 10 Eerie Recordings.

This is a 1922 recording made by Thomas Edison of Harry E. Humphrey.  It was intended to be sold to owners of Edison’s phonograph so that their children could have some Christmas joy.  In fact, on the contrary it is rather awful.  If I were a kid, this would put me off Christmas forever.  That laugh!  Ugh!

Click on image to view in ultra-high resolution

Robert Helpmann” would magnify the creep factor when “he” incorporated an excerpt from “Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph” played backwards in “his” edgy and/or disturbing video [caution to the easily-spooked] “Daisy Helps Out in the Kitchen” — as well as 11 other short films uploaded simultaneously on one day, July 12, 2015, on YouTube?  Who, exactly, is “Robert Helpmann” and is this a ‘Paul Is Dead‘-like hoax?  Inside a Mind, in their investigative video, seems to have figured it all out.

Jerome from Watch Tower History points out that Harry Humphrey (“monologist, elocutionist, actor and recording artist”) and his association with Edison goes all the way back to 1912, when Humphrey made his first recording.  Jerome, too, helpfully demystifies the technical aspects around the recording process in that era:

In those days, raw sound with its limited frequency range was literally collected by a horn and sent to equipment that vibrated a cutting stylus.  Recording artistes sometimes had to virtually put their head into the recording horn and shout to get an acceptable result.

Speaking of primitive sound technology, have you ever seen a cylinder record being played back?  Play the video below and also be sure to click on the link above to enjoy “thematic playlists” of recordings that go as far back as the 19th century, thanks to the fine folks at the UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive.

“Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph”     cylinder record     1922

How cool to discover that the Library of Congress catalog record for this 1922 recording by Thomas Alva Edison also includes the ability for anyone to (a) play a copy of the original recording and/or (b) download this 12.8 GB file to your own computer!

The US National Park Service has also posted this recording on its website for the Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, New Jersey.

I wonder if the Arthur A. Penn Estate is aware that someone named Alan Brown has taken credit for having written a song with a nearly identical title — “Santa Claus Hides in The Phonograph” — that was released in 1923 for the US and Australian markets on the Brunswick label.

But wait, it turns out that Okeh had released “Santa Claus Hides in the Talking Machine” – penned by Arthur A. Penn but performed by Ernest Hare – in 1921, meaning that Harry Humphrey, alas, did not record the original version.

Check out the Art Deco label art on this 78

A Canadian Defends America

I own 50 or more K-Tel (and Ronco) hits LPs that were issued from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.   I almost passed on Music Power recently, since the cover looked so similar to K-Tel’s other offerings from the early 70s, but upon closer examination, I had to admit there were a few tracks i did not recognize — most conspicuously, “The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion)” by Gordon Sinclair:

“The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion)”     Gordon Sinclair    1973

Sinclair, who describes Americans as “the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people in all the world,” points out that the U.S. has used its resources and expertise to implement flood control measures on the Yellow, Yangtze, Nile, Amazon, Ganges, and the Niger Rivers — yet “no foreign land has sent a dollar to help” the U.S. during the Mississippi Flood of 1973.   Sinclair, unsurprisingly, nurses other grievances, and he’s not afraid to voice them.

Gordon Sinclair:  unlikely pop star

Gordon SinclairWikipedia picks up the story from here:

“On June 5, 1973, following news that the American Red Cross had run out of money as a result of aid efforts for recent natural disasters, Sinclair recorded what would become his most famous radio editorial, “The Americans.”   While paying tribute to American success, ingenuity, and generosity to people in need abroad, Sinclair decried that when America faced crisis itself, it often seemed to face that crisis alone.

At the time, Sinclair considered the piece to be nothing more than one of his usual items.  But when U.S. News & World Report published a full transcript, the magazine was flooded with requests for copies.[18]  Radio station WWDC-AM in Washington, D.C. started playing a recording of Sinclair’s commentary with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” playing in the background.  Sinclair told the Star in November 1973 that he had received 8,000 letters about his commentary.

With the strong response generated by the editorial, a recording of Sinclair’s commentary was sold as a single with all profits going to the American Red Cross.   ‘The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion)’ went to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100, making the 73-year-old Sinclair the 2nd-oldest living person ever to have a Billboard U.S. Top 40 hit (75-year-old Moms Mabley had a Top 40 hit in 1969 with ‘Abraham, Martin & John’).”

Does K-Tel’s Music Power include all four minutes and fifty-five seconds of “The Americans”?   Just by looking at the length of each track on the record itself, I can see that K-Tel has edited this long-winded diatribe easily by half.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine many other instances where K-Tel would include spoken-word narration with incidental musical backing.  Are there other such examples Zero to 180 is legally obligated to ponder.

Original K-Tel ad for ‘Music Power’ LP — Why No excerpt from the Gordon Sinclair Hit?

Philadelphia’s Rebirth Begins Here

WCAU, one of Philadelphia’s earliest radio stations (first broadcast:  May 22, 1922), couldn’t sit idly by and allow Philadelphia’s less-than-stellar reputation go unchallenged — so it went on the offensive.  The result:  Just a Philadelphia Minute.

Philadelphia LP-x

WCAU, “a CBS-owned station – represented nationally by CBS Radio Spot Sales,” produced this collection of 60-second spots that were created by a number of top Philadelphia advertising agencies.  Incredibly enough, no information whatsoever can be found on the Internet about this historic effort to rebrand the City of Philadephia — I can only guess that this album was issued sometime in the 1970s.  The text on the back cover is priceless:

Just a Philadelphia Minute is in itself an end, and a beginning.

An end to Philadelphia’s dark ages and Chinese wall ugliness.  An end to a city thinking with an inferiority complex.

And a beginning that says Philadelphia doesn’t have to take a back seat to any place.  A beginning that means a new spirit of positive action for Philadelphia.

The committed Philadephia advertising agencies who produced these 60-second spots constitute the beginning.”

My favorite piece on this album is this jaunty musical number — needless to say, it’s the old-timey theater organ that steals the show:

[Pssst: Click the triangle above to play “Philadelphia Is the Greatest Little City in the USA”]

Considerably less effective is this spoken-word radio spot in which the tough-guy announcer appears to berate the listener into appreciating Philadelphia’s charms – or else:

[Pssst: Click the triangle to play “How Long Has It Been Since You Visited Philadelphia?”]

“Countryside”: Jim Henson’s Word Jazz

Would love to know how Jim Henson, so early in his career, was able to get Frank Sinatra to conduct the orchestra backing him on his first single, a playful word jazz piece entitled, “The Countryside:

Jim Henson’s first (and only) 45 – released January, 1960

“Tick-Tock-Sick”, the B-Side, would seem to presage Henson’s Academy Award-nominated experimental short film 5 years later, Time Piece, a surreal and bizarre  stream-of-consciousness meditation on what just might be the fourth dimension:

I was rather taken by Henson’s Time Piece when I first viewed it several years ago at the Smithsonian and was surprised to find how “bold” and “fresh” (including those parts that might not be wholly suitable for young children) this film still is.  At one time I was able to find the entire work online, but it would appear that only a small excerpt is what folks can view freely on YouTube.  Says the Museum of the Moving Image:

“In 1965, Jim Henson made Time Piece, an experimental nine-minute short film that tells what he called ‘the story of Everyman, frustrated by the typical tasks of a typical day.’  The film opens with a man—played by Henson—in a hospital bed.  A doctor takes his pulse.  The pulse turns into a drumbeat, which becomes the percussive soundtrack for the film, in a syncopated score created by Don Sebesky.  Through a series of jump cuts, we follow the man as he walks through city streets, then suburban streets, and then the jungle.  Playfully surreal sequences are bridged by short passages of stop-motion animation.  As Henson described his filmmaking goals:  ‘In Time Piece I was playing with a kind of flow of consciousness form of editing, where the image took you to another image, and there was no logic to it but your mind put it together.’  While the film retains his trademark sense of humor, it is also a bold example of nonlinear editing.

Time Piece played for a year at the Paris Theatre in Manhattan, along with the French art-house hit A Man and a Woman.  Henson’s film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film.  It remains fresh today as both a time capsule of 1960s experimental filmmaking, and as a brilliantly conceived and edited example of Henson’s creativity.”

Zero to 180:  Approaching the Two-Year Mark

Nearly one year ago Zero to 180 celebrated its one-year anniversary with a special “Howard Dean” remix of a Muppet-related release, “Mad” by Little Jerry & the Monotones.  Click here to link to this exclusive muppet remix that is accompanied by a brief essay – “Zero to 180:  Not Yet Potty Trained” – that humorously recounts the tragic math surrounding the blog’s original date of launch:  12/12/12.

“Swimmy”: Sounds of a Buchla Box?

I am very appreciative that Scholastic Video, in partnership with Weston Woods, has done such a consistently great job adapting children’s literature for the small screen and in a way that appeals to people of all ages.

PV000324_storytimefavorites_VSOne such adaptation is the story of a fish named Swimmy, who shows his friends how—with team work and ingenuity—they can overcome any danger.  The film’s soundtrack is particularly effective in conjuring up a nautical netherworld, and yet no information seems to exist about who scored these sounds.  In absence of any facts, I would not guess that a Moog is making those undersea burbling sounds but rather a Buchla Box:

Swimmy Soundtrack

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play the soundtrack to the film adaptation of “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni.]

Swimmy - page from book

120 Years of Electronic Music provides the historical overview:

“Donald Buchla started building and designing electronic instruments in 1960 when he was commissioned by the Avant Garde composer Morton Subotnik to build an instrument for composing and performing live electronic music. Subotnik was interested in developing a single instrument to replace the large complex Electronic Music Studios of the day where most ‘serious’ avant-garde music was composed and recorded. These studios consisted of multiple individual oscillators, processor units, filter and mixers that, with the help of technicians (each of the studios had it’s own unique system), needed to be manually patched together. The advent of transistor technology allowed much of this process to be miniaturised into a single portable, standardised version of the Electronic Music Studio but still using the modular, patchable approach.”

Buchla Modules - Series 100

(Notice – no keyboard with the original 100 Series Buchla Box)

By the way, I called Weston Woods to inquire whether they had a historian/librarian who could provide any information about this film and its soundtrack and was told that Weston Woods actually licensed this title from Italtoons, a film production company based in New York City.  Italtoons, unfortunately, seems to be no longer in business.

I then reached out to electronic music pioneer, Suzanne Ciani, who very kindly agreed to listen to the “Swimmy” soundtrack to determine whether a Buchla Box might have been used to generate the sounds that accompany the narration of the story.  Ciani concluded that, while these analog sounds certainly could “be done on a Buchla,” nevertheless, “there is nothing particularly Buchla-esque” about this synthesizer-embellished soundtrack.  Will that stop me from creating false controversies in future posts?  Doubtful.

Worth noting, by the way, that filmmaker, Connie Field, finished her Kickstarter Campaign last October and is presumably at work on her new documentary, Buchla:  California Maverick on a New Frontier.

This piscine piece is dedicated to the (former) Invertebrate House at DC’s National Zoo – no longer extant as of today.  Is it hopelessly naive to think that a petition might help reverse this decision by Smithsonian officials?  Quite possibly – but let’s try anyway.

Free Game!  Suzanne Ciani:  Real-Life Pinball Wizard

Riveting film clip of Suzanne Ciani living out every 70s teenage rocker’s fantasy:  creating the music and special effects for a Bally pinball machine.  Peter Ustinov narrates an 8-minute clip from the science TV news magazine, OMNI, that shows Ciani at work in the recording studio experimenting with a vocoder, programming in BASIC, and creating various synthesized sounds for 1979’s Xenon – one of the few pinball machines to feature a woman’s voice.  Click here to see (and hear) a video of two games being played on Bally’s Xenon pinball machine back-to-back, with an exciting multi-ball climax at the end of the second game.

Extra Ball:  Buchla Box Meets the Mad Men

Check out this Clio-winning General Electric dishwasher ad for which Suzanne Ciani wielded her trusty Buchla Box to create the synthesizer-driven soundtrack.

‘Sounds in Space’: Ken Nordine Revels in Stereo’s Wonder

This early stereo demonstration record by the fine folks at RCA Victor features spoken word parts by Ken Nordine (the maestro of “word jazz” – check out this ‘kinetic type’ animation clip for “Green” from Nordine’s Colors album) as between-song stereo banter.  The recordings, which feature mainly orchestral works (pop, swing & classical) are all from RCA’s catalog, naturally.

Sounds in Space LP

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A stereophonic sound demonstration record for use on stereo orthophonic high fidelity ‘victrolas’

One fun track shows Nordine reveling in stereo’s wonder before showing the listener the pop science behind “Rag Mop” – the new stereo version by Ralph Flanagan’s Orchestra:

Rag Mop – Ralph Flanagan Orchestra

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Rag Mop” by Ralph Flanagan’s Orchestra.]

This 1958 album was produced in cooperation with Robert Oakes Jordan Associates, who also released that same year, Concert-Disc Stereo Demo with Exclusive “Bouncing Ball” Balance Control Signal Plus Excerpts from The Outstanding Concert-Disc Stereo Library.

Ken Nordine - Word JazzKen Nordine - Colors

“I Know You Aries”: Mort Garson Asks, What’s Your Sign?

How nutty to release 12 albums of Moog synthesizer music simultaneously, one for each sign of the Zodiac.  And yet Mort Garson somehow convinced A&M to do so in 1969 –Signs of the Zodiac

I Know You Aries,”  the lead-off track on the Aries LP, could have been the A-side of a 45:

I Know You Aries – Mort Garson

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “I Know You Aries” by Mort Garson.]

From Garson’s obituary in the January 11, 2008 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Beginning with The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds in 1967, Garson created numerous albums using the Moog synthesizer, including Electronic Hair Pieces, a 1969 version of songs from the hit Broadway musical “Hair,” and Signs of the Zodiac, a 12-volume 1969 series featuring one album for each astrological sign.

Garson was making The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds album for Elektra with writer Jacques Wilson when an orchestra member said he knew engineer Robert Moog, who had invented the first commercially available electronic music synthesizer a few years earlier.

“I met him, got interested in his invention and immediately put it in Zodiac to add a sweetness to the sound,” Garson told the Los Angeles Times in 1969.

“That was the first album ever to use the Moog synthesizer and a live orchestra together,” said Bernie Krause, who was at the “Zodiac” recording session.

Krause said he and his music partner, Paul Beaver, had introduced the Moog synthesizer to pop music and film in Hollywood in 1967 and were selling the units and teaching classes on how to use them.

Zodiac is a very influential cult album from the ’60s,” said Trevor Pinch, co-author of Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer, a 2002 book that featured a 1969 photograph of Garson and his Moog synthesizer on the cover.

Zodiac influenced all sorts of people, including the Moody Blues,” Pinch said. “They came up with ‘Nights in White Satin’ after listening to Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds.”

Garson said in the Times interview that he didn’t use the Moog synthesizer in “a very sophisticated way” on the 1967 Zodiac album.

But by the time he and Wilson did the 1968 A&M album The Wozard of Iz: An Electronic Odyssey — a hippie-style parody of “The Wizard of Oz” in which Dorothy proclaims that “Kansas isn’t where it’s at” — he said he had learned most of the techniques.

“His albums were fabulous examples of New Age music and really kind of kicked off the New Age genre — and they were enormously popular,” Krause said. “It was part of the texture of the whole San Francisco flower scene and all the rest of it in the late ’60s.”

At the time of Garson’s interview with The Times in July 1969, his Moog synthesizer music was about to be heard by millions of Americans who would be glued to their TV sets watching history in the making: the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon.

At frequent intervals during coverage of the mission, CBS aired a 6 1/2 -minute commentary-free film produced by Chuck Braverman with music by Garson.

Garson completed the score for the film — a doctored and edited version of NASA films from previous space flights — in a week in the small studio in his home in the Hollywood Hills.

“The only sounds that go along with space travel are electronic ones,” he told The Times. “The Apollo film shows different facets of the flight — blastoff, separation of the stages of the rocket, scenes of the moon at close range, of the astronauts playing games in the ship and of earthrise.”

The music, he said, “has to carry the film along. It has to echo the sound of the blastoff and even the static you hear on the astronauts’ report from space. People are used to hearing things from outer space, not just seeing them.

“So I used a big, symphonic sound for the blastoff, some jazzy things for the zero-G game of catch, psychedelic music for a section that uses negatives and diffuse colors on shots taken inside the ship, and a pretty melody for the moon. After all, it’s still a lovely moon.”

Born July 20, 1924, in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, Garson attended the Juilliard School of Music and was a pianist and arranger with dance orchestras before serving in Special Services during World War II.

He most recently composed a suite of music about San Francisco, his home since 1993.

“He was just putting the finishing touches on it,” Darmet said. “We were going to digitally record it; we still will.”

Lily Tomlin’s Got the 20th Century Blues

This 45 came into our household as a result of my mom, who worked in the 1970s at a mild-mannered classical music radio station by day that switched over to a hard rock format at the stroke of midnight when it ceased programming for the broadcast day.

Lily Tomlin's 20th Century Blues

This late-night rock station being on the same frequency as its “parent” classical station no doubt resulted in some colorful phone calls when loyal listeners switched on their radios after midnight, only to hear The Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein”  – the original everlasting album version at that.

Tomlin’s 1973 Polydor release is one of those white-label “for DJ use only” promos but with a twist:  rather than the same track on both sides (one in stereo, the other in mono), this record features different selections on the A & B sides.  The A-side is a musical number, while the B-side is a comedy piece where Tomlin does all the voices (including a brief cameo from precocious preschooler, Edith Ann) through the miracle of modern recording technology.

I originally intended to post a recording of the A-side, a pastiche of a 1920’s blues number recorded to sound as if it were a 78 playing on an old Victrola, but I have to admit that the comedy piece on the B-side is more engaging and, surprisingly, seems not to have dated a bit 40 years later:

20th Century Blues – Lily Tomlin

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play Lily Tomlin’s solo ensemble piece,  “20th Century Blues.”]