5 Great Songs You Should Listen To: December Edition

(First things first: a shoutout to my friend Kyle, who originated the idea for this series!)

I Can Dream About You” – Dan Hartman (From Streets Of Fire, 1984)

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In 1982, screenwriter/director Walter Hill was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood due to his smash hit 48 HRS. Hill used his popularity to set up Streets Of Fire. Hill described the film as one that his teenage self would have considered perfect, including elements that he thought were “great then and which I still have great affection for: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” Unfortunately, SoF bombed at the box office. It did leave us with a well-loved soundtrack, though! Of the tracks I’ve heard, I think the strongest is Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You.” The tune was meant as a homage to the doo-wop music of the ’50s. They didn’t entirely succeed in that regard, but the song is a fine ’80s love song with a gentle, soothing production backing it up. Check it out!

He’s Sure The Boy I Love” – The Crystals (From He’s A Rebel, 1963)

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In the early 1960s, the most exciting new thing coming out of pop music was producer Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound.” It’s easy to see why; even today, the big sound, rich arrangements, and innocent lyrics make Spector-produced tracks sound both unique and sweetly nostalgic. “He’s Sure The Boy I Love” is a prime example of everything that makes those early “Wall Of Sound” tunes great! (By the way, if you’re a movie buff, you might recognize this song from Goodfellas, where Martin Scorsese uses it as a sonic backdrop to some very unsavory goings-on!)

The Road Goes On Forever” – The Highwaymen (From The Road Goes On Forever, 1995)

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The Highwaymen were a country supergroup consisting of genre stars Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. They only recorded three albums together, but they were important in keeping the “outlaw country” tradition from being completely forgotten in the midst of pop-oriented country music. “The Road Goes On Forever” is a particular favorite of mine for its textured lyrics and the wonderful Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque story they tell. It’s a must-listen!

My Eyes Adored You” – Frankie Valli (Single, 1974)

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Yes, I know “My Eyes Adored You” is corny. It’s corny in a way I can get behind, though! In fact, the ’70s production and the cotton-candy-sweet romantic lyrics are exactly why I hold this tune in such warm regard. Although I didn’t grow up in the ’70s, I read many YA novels from the period during my middle school and high school years (and even today). This tune, very much of the period, bring me right back to my early years, when emotions were high and life was relatively carefree.

Show Me The Way” – Peter Frampton (From Frampton Comes Alive!, 1976)

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Speaking of corny songs… This classic tune – from Peter Frampton’s famous live album – recently taught me a valuable lesson about pop music and its importance. It was the day after Christmas, and I was out for a car ride with my dad. As we shot the breeze and chatted about stuff, we were tuned in to the local oldies station. As we drove, “Show Me The Way” came over the air, and, for a second, I was transfixed. Something about that song completed the moment in such a powerful, poignant way. I know I’ll always remember that moment with my dad, largely because I have a song to connect it to. That’s what pop music gives to each of us: it’s inextricably linked to moments in time, due to the time it was released or some other personal memory. It remains locked in our memory banks forever, ready to bring back those vintage feelings and emotions whenever the song is played on our radios or iPods. That’s what makes those songs special!

 

 

Five Great Movie Opening Scenes (And What They Teach Us)

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Let’s start with a little hypothetical situation, shall we?

Let’s say it’s Friday night. You’ve just finished a long, stressful work week, and you’ve decided to unwind though a trip to your local multiplex. You go to your favorite theater and buy a ticket to the film that sounds most interesting. You get your tub of popcorn (slathered in that wonderful-tasting fake butter) and your gallon of soda. You make your way into the dark theater and settle into a seat in your favorite part of the theater. You’re ready to be blown away!

Now that we’ve come to this point, let me ask you a question. How much time do you give a movie before passing judgment?

If you’re like most people, you’ve made your decision within ten minutes (give or take a few minutes). During the movie’s opening sequence, you’ve made up your mind about a movie’s quality, and the film will have to work really hard to change your opinion, good or bad.

What does all this mean? It means that aspiring filmmakers (like myself) need to learn how to open a story properly. If we don’t start our story with a bang, audiences will never see the magical scenes we labored over, connect with the lifelike characters we carefully created, or gasp at the surprises we cleverly planted later in the movie. They’ll be too busy sleeping to see them.

Okay, okay, so a good beginning is important. We get that. That brings up another question, however: what makes an opening scene great?

Honestly, I don’t know if there’s any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to this. It really depends on the sort of story you’re telling and the tone you’re trying to evoke. However, I do feel that there are basic guidelines that can provide some assistance, no matter what yarn you’re spinning.

Personally, when I’m starting a story (or an article or a script or whatever), I try to keep these tips in mind:

  1. A good opening should hook the audience. It should make them want to know what happens next.
  2. A good opening should establish the tone and world of the film. It should let the audience know what kind of movie they’re watching.
  3. If possible, a good opening should show off a little bit! It should show the audience something that they won’t see at any other movie at the theater!

Below, you’ll find five movie openings that I think get it right! Of course, however, I don’t know everything about storytelling or the movies. Tell me about your favorite openings in the comments below!

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

So you want to start your movie with a bang? How does a dead body grab ya?

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling B-movie screenwriter. While trying to avoid a pair of repo men, Gillis pulls into the driveway of a run-down Hollywood mansion. It looks deserted, but it’s not; in fact, it’s the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent-movie star who fell into hard times with the debut of talking motion pictures. Desmond wants to make a comeback, and she’s written the script she wants to make a comeback with. Desmond forces Gillis to stay at her house and re-write her script while she hides him from the repo guys. Things get REALLY weird from there!

Wilder immediately establishes the hard tone of his film-industry noir story by opening it with a murder! As the film begins, homicide detectives are pouring into Norma Desmond’s backyard, where Joe Gillis’s body lies floating in the pool. As the cops investigate the scene, Gillis’s voice-over comes over the speakers, inviting us to relax as he tells us the story of his death. Is the plot device a little twisted? Yes. It’s also attention-grabbing, and that’s just what an opening scene should be!

Touch Of Evil (1958)

In 1941, a stage/radio wunderkind named Orson Welles released his first motion picture: Citizen Kane. The movie was surrounded by a storm of controversy; newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst recognized certain unsavory elements of his own life woven into the story of Welles’s character Charles Foster Kane. Hearst didn’t want those parts of his life and personality to be splashed on screens across the USA and took steps to kill Citizen Kane. Hearst didn’t succeed, but the film did lose money during its initial release. Of course, Kane is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, but Hollywood didn’t have that foresight. After a couple more nasty experiences on other movies, Welles left the Hollywood system in 1948, determined to make his movies independently.

1958’s Touch Of Evil marked the first feature-length film Orson Welles had directed in ten years. The film tells the story of Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican drug-enforcement officer who has just arrested members of a major drug ring. In retaliation, the remaining members of the ring plant a bomb in a car, killing two people. During his investigation, Vargas runs afoul of Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a corrupt American sheriff in the pocket of the drug ring. Quinlan is determined to pin the bombing on an innocent young man, but Vargas stands in his way.

Touch Of Evil begins with a close-up on a bomb being set, a strong image meant to immediately draw our attention. The film moves into one of the most famous one-take scenes in history. It’s all the better to keep the suspense rising and story flowing smoothly. As we marvel at the technical achievement, we follow the car – waiting for the inevitable explosion – and are introduced to Vargas and his new wife (Janet Leigh). It’s an exciting and elegant way to open this dark story!

Jaws (1975)

It’s summer, and that means that the east coast’s Amity Island is gearing up for the yearly influx of tourists. This is extremely important to the community; most of the city’s money comes from these summer months. Unfortunately, a gigantic great white shark has established his feeding ground in the water off Amity Island’s beaches. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but Amity’s mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), strongly objects. After two more deaths, however, Vaughn eventually agrees to pay Quint (Robert Shaw), a grizzled fisherman, ten thousand dollars to kill the shark. Quint, Brody, and shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) take to the ocean in Quint’s woefully inadequate boat – the Orca – to do battle with the monster shark.

Jaws was only Steven Spielberg’s second film, but he was already a sure-footed filmmaker and storyteller! That shining talent makes itself known immediately through the first sequence of the film. Spielberg shows an artistic flair by not showing us the shark’s doings below the water. Rather, through John Williams’s fantastic score, the shark’s POV shots, and Chrissie Watkins’s (Susan Backlinie) death throes, Spielberg puts our imagination to work conjuring up something much worse than the movie could possibly have shown us. It’s a fantastic way to start a fantastic film!

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

When it comes to starting a film, Twilight Zone: The Movie presents two interesting challenges for the screenwriter. Problem The First: The Twilight Zone is a huge cultural landmark, and most people have at least some familiarity with the show. Audiences are going to come in with preconceived notions, and those are difficult for a writer to overcome! The second issue has to do with the fact that TZ: The Movie features not one story, but four. How does one construct an opening sequence that accommodates everything?

Here’s how writer/director John Landis handled the challenge: write a beginning that doesn’t really connect to anything! Instead of trying to explain what the Twilight Zone is (Rod Serling’s classic intro already does that) or setting up a frame story, Landis created an opening sketch that’s all about setting the tone of the film (and scaring the pants off us in the process)!

On a personal note: this opening scene scared the tar out of me when I saw it as a child. In fact, it scared me so much that I didn’t finish Twilight Zone: The Movie for many years. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I revisited and enjoyed the film. As a matter of fact, this opening sequence – the one that warped me so badly – has become my favorite part of the movie!

Oh, and by the way: You wanna see something really scary?

The Lion King (1994)

I hesitate to use the word ‘perfect’ to describe anything. I’ve found that, if one looks hard enough, one can find flaws in almost everything. They may be small flaws, but almost anything can be made better with a little extra care and effort. Therefore, the P-word is rarely accurate, and so I rarely use it.

That being said, let me tell you this. The Lion King’s opening IS PERFECT.

In a little over four minutes, the “Circle Of Life” sequence does everything an opening sequence should do. It sets the tone for the film that follows; with all the different animals converging, the wide assortment of camera angles, the dynamic lighting, and bold music, we know that we’re in for a big, sweeping epic. It introduces a ton of our central characters. It grabs our attention right away with that epic opening line “NYAAAAAH SVENATYAAAAAAH!” (Feel free to correct my spelling on that one.) On top of all that, the sequence does a fantastic job of establishing the theme of the film. More specifically, that theme is the message that each of us are valuable, and that each of us have a purpose and mission in life. Pretty heady stuff, no?

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a few minutes. The Lion King pulls it off, and it does it without any dialogue. How amazing is that?!

The Lion King‘s opening scene is a perfect example of what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema:” a sequence or a bit of storytelling that couldn’t be done as well in any other medium. Right off the bat, The Lion King lets us know that we’re in the hands of master filmmakers. The film continues to prove it all the way to its end credits!

…Yes, The Lion King‘s opening is a work of art, but then all the scenes in this article are. Not all of them are masterful on a technical level, but that’s okay. All of them are showcases of fine storytellers plying their craft, showing us how to work in the magical art of cinema!

What are your favorite film opening sequences? Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

10 Opening Album Tracks That Will Blow Your Socks Off

Eddie Cochran (of “Summertime Blues” fame) with his gal at the record shop

Welcome to The Vintage Vestibule!  Before we get into the thick of things, please go and visit our “Welcome!” page.  You can find the link right below our header.  Go on and check it out; I’ll wait.

You back?  Okay, let’s get going!

First impressions are extremely important when you’re trying to entertain someone.  The first ten minutes of a movie are what tell you whether you wasted your money or not.  You probably read the first page of a book (or a first blog post…) before you slap down your money, trying to get a feel of what awaits you in the following pages.

…And, of course, the opening track of an album sets the tone for your listening experience.  If the recording artist has done his or her job right, their album will open with a tune that will convince you to keep the needle on the vinyl (or keep your finger away from the skip button, if you’re a modern-technology type).

Okay, okay, so what makes a good opening track?  Oh, good, thank you for asking.  In this author’s humble opinion, a good album track will do one of two things: (1) it will ease you into the album with a song that encapsulates the album’s theme or tone, or (2) it will whack you over the head and say, “Hey!  Listen to me!”

Let me show you what I mean.  Using the criteria above, let’s take a look at ten of the best retro (or retro-styled) opening tracks that I know.

10. “A Song For You” – Carpenters

This Leon Russell-penned tune eloquently distills the theme of the Carpenters’ fourth album (which takes its name from this song)  into a five-minute mission statement.  Richard & Karen Carpenter must have noticed this, since they decided to bookend their magnificent ballads with Russell’s work (there’s a haunting one-minute reprise of the tune at the end of the track list).  Listen to this track, and you immediately know where Richard & Karen are going to be taking you.

9. “Thunder Road” – Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen opened his Born To Run album with this tune, the best working-class love story that he’s ever penned (and that’s saying a TON).  From its tender harmonica-and-piano opening (perfect for easing a listener into an album) to its soaring, lush finale, Springsteen paints a vivid picture of the youthful dreams and fights for freedom that shape ninety percent of his work.  That’s probably why this song opens most Springsteen greatest-hits track lists.

8. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.)” – Glen Campbell

Dennis Lambert & Brian Potter’s “Country Boy” said something that Glen Campbell had probably wanted to say for a long time.  Reading books and articles about Campbell, one gets the impression that the boy from Arkansas never felt quite at home in Los Angeles.  In 1975, Campbell finally put those feelings into this lushly-orchestrated song, which perfectly states what the 1975 album Rhinestone Cowboy is all about.  Lambert & Potter’s rich orchestrations jolt the listener awake while Campbell pours out his feelings for all to hear.

7. “What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye

By 1971, Marvin Gaye was ready to change the musical world, and he had the perfect song to show us how he was going to do it.  He put that magical song, “What’s Going On,” at the beginning of the album of the same name, and it proceeded to become one of the most important songs of the decade.  The tune starts with some inviting banter between Gaye and the Funk Brothers (Motown studio musicians), making us feel comfortable before launching into a richly-textured, funk-laced backing track.  Gaye adds the cherry to the cake with his striking, thoughtful lyric.  By the time the tune’s over, you’re a changed person.  If you’re not… I don’t really know what to say.

6. “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” – Frank Sinatra

Here, Frank Sinatra ditches his “cool, suave man” facade and shows us the conflicted man underneath.  “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” the title track to Sinatra’s 1955 masterpiece In The Wee Small Hours, portrays Sinatra as a man driven to insomnia by a broken heart.  Sinatra’s singing is so heartfelt that you forget that Sinatra ever had any swagger at all; rarely did The Chairman Of The Board ever sound more relatable.  The simple arrangement only enhances the melancholy tone of the lyrics, helping coax the listener into the most introspective and sad album in Sinatra’s body of work.

5. “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” – She & Him

Okay, so it’s not “retro,” per se.  I couldn’t resist adding “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” however, since Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, and their musicians do such an amazing job of keeping Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” alive.  “Number” opens She & Him’s Volume Three with an exhilarating rush of pounding percussion, strings, and vocals that pack such an energetic punch that you can’t help but be affected by it.  By the time Ms. Deschanel’s smooth, creamy voice bursts in, you’d follow her anywhere.

4. “I Got A Name” – Jim Croce

You’ll have to cut me some slack here; this song is such a personal touchstone that I can’t talk about it in an analytical way.  The lyrics speak to me so deeply that I’ve adapted them as a personal… I don’t know, I guess “mission statement” is the only word.  Croce’s strong sense of self-identity and self-confidence is something that everybody could (and should) strive to emulate.  The song would have been great just on the strength of the lyrics, but Croce accompanies with an arrangement that’s beautiful in its home-grown, folksy style.  It’s a perfect opening to the last album Croce released before he died, which shares this song’s title.  It’s touching to hear such a life-affirming song come right before Croce’s untimely death.

3. “A Hard Day’s Night” – The Beatles

Ah, yes.  The chord heard ’round the world.  That opening chord (which I challenge anyone to find on any guitar) is what makes “A Hard Day’s Night” a great opening track; it’s so loud that it demands that you sit & listen to the rest of the album (also named A Hard Day’s Night).  The rest of the tune borrows its energy from that opening strum, turning what could have been just another bubble-gum pop song into a clarion call for a generation.    John, Paul, George, and Ringo are at their pre-Rubber Soul best here, taking the style of their idols Elvis Presley & Chuck Berry to a new, more textured level.

2. “(I Know) I’m Losing You” – The Temptations

“(I Know) I’m Losing You” is the best distillation of the “Motown Sound” that I’ve ever heard.  It’s only appropriate, therefore, that it comes from Motown’s greatest group, The Temptations, and that it kicks off their best album, The Temptations With A Lot O’ Soul.  With A Lot O’ Soul was the first full album where the Temptations began to break away from their earlier, Smokey Robinson-esque sound, and the group let you know something was new right away with the hard-edged arrangement.  Of course, David Ruffin’s vocals were as soulful as ever, but even his voice had a rough edge that it hadn’t had on earlier tunes.  Of course, the Temptations would go further with this sound on albums like Cloud NinePsychedelic Shack but this track (and, in fact, all of With A Lot O’ Soul) was an important first step.  Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

1. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – The Beach Boys

I think we can all agree that The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums of all time.  In fact, some of us (including myself) would go as far as to say that it’s THE greatest album of all time.  It’s definitely the album when Brian Wilson came to full flower as a musician.  Brian’s arrangements take Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” and build on it, creating something more majestic and soul-touching than Spector could even imagine.  The lyrics are just as touching, if not more; Brian & Tony Asher (with contributions by Mike Love and Terry Sachen) tap into the deepest emotions that lie in all of us, turning them into lyrics that we can all identify with, whether we’re old or young, poor or rich, or whatever.

Brian made a masterful choice in placing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” at the top of the track list.  The song starts with a beautiful chain of notes played on guitar, drawing us into the song.  By the time Hal Blaine strikes that drum, we’re already in the perfect mindset to take in this masterpiece.  Brian’s lush arrangement then proceeds to out-Spector Phil Spector, enveloping us in a thick blanket of rich sound.  Meanwhile, the lyrics are speaking to our souls, telling us exactly what young love feels like, perfectly detailing the hopes, fears, and dreams that come with such love.  It’s every crush, infatuation, and true love you’ve ever had, distilled into two-and-a-half minutes.  It’s truly glorious.

…And there you have it: your author’s humble list of the 10 greatest opening tracks in vintage history.  Thanks for sticking around for the long haul, and if I’ve left out any of your favorites, let me know!