Author: Jim Stalker

Seeking answers – one post at a time. Sales guy – family guy – thinks a great guitar solo can make the song. Based in Granite Bay CA – where there is plenty of granite and not much bay.
Music

Frampton Comes Alive – The 70’s on a Platter

Where were you when you first heard Frampton Comes Alive?

Seems like a ridiculous question? Not for me. I remember it like it was yesterday. Especially the first song I heard, “Lines on My Face.”

I was a junior in high school and had stopped off at my friend Scott Cummings’ house after school. Nothing unusual here. He lived close to the high school and had a fully stocked kitchen of snacks and sodas. So, it was a regular stop.

Plus, his mom, was “cool!” Sometimes she’d crank her stereo with artists we liked. Very cool mom. It was the 70’s. They were around then.

Scott’s mom invited us to the family room to chat about the day and check out her new Peter Frampton album. At this point, “Frampton Comes Alive” wasn’t a “thing.” In February of 1976, it had just come out (released in January). FCA had not yet become the biggest selling live album of all time.

While I was familiar with the song, “I Don’t Need No Doctor” by Humble Pie, I didn’t know Frampton’s former band performed that. Nor did I know that it was Frampton’s riff that drove that song that had become an FM staple.

The truth was, despite being a big music person, I knew little of Frampton.  Nor did anyone else. The four solo studio albums he had made never caught fire despite growing an enthusiastic fan base.

My friend John Dannan was one of those fans. John was always trying to get me to listen to Frampton, thinking because I was a guitar player, I’d appreciate his fluid playing.  I heard a few cuts in John’s car, but, for whatever reason, they never grabbed me.

So what was I to make of this new double “live” album I was about to hear? I looked at the jacket. A slightly out of focus cover photo by Richard Aaron of  Frampton with his three pickup black Les Paul.  Cool. The band, pictured on the inner jacket, which included “Bob Mayo on the keyboards, Bob Mayo!”  looked solid.

OK, looks good. Let’s give it a spin. Maybe Dannan was right. Plus, listening to this album would be better than pretending to do homework I wasn’t going to do.

Mrs. Cummings put on side four.

There are two tracks on side four of FCA, the first one being the ballad “Lines On My Face,” the second the set-closing crowd-pleaser, “Do You Feel Like We Do.”

I was unfamiliar with both songs.

The first thing you hear on side four when the needle hits the vinyl is the fully engaged Winterland crowd of seeming Frampton fanatics. Before you hear the opening notes of the chord that opens Lines, you hear the fans.

I would later learn the crowd was a distinctive feature of FCA. This crowd responds to every lyric, every musical twist, and most famously, every nuance of Frampton’s talk box device during “Do You Feel Like We Do.” Never had a rock and roll crowd been so front and center alongside the music on a live album.

Sure on “The Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East,” you can hear the crowd clapping along during “You Don’t Love Me” and famously shouting out, “play all night!” during “Whipping Post.” Conversely, on “The Who Live at Leads” you barely hear the crowd. There’s hardly any audience interaction on that one.  FYI – those were the two best live albums at that time.

The audience mix on FCA is unusually prominent compared to them. Later live albums, like “Cheap Trick Live at Buddahkan” would take this mixing to the extreme where the audience overpowers the performance.

Part of the appeal of FCA was they got the audience/band mix precise, and it sounded fresh. Like you were there.

Keep in mind this FCA mix came out concurrent with new stereo systems that could exploit these subtleties of sound. The Cummings’  stereo, with some terrific KLH monitors, provided perfect sound.

Back to the music.

Frampton had been honing his catalog of original material through years of marathon touring. He learned what worked and what didn’t. So FCA is a bit of “greatest hits” set list (despite not having hits). Little did I know, that “Lines on My Face,” the song I was about to hear, was one of Frampton’s absolute best songs that his band had become super tight delivering with excellent dynamics and spontaneity.

As I lied on the carpet, after hearing the crowd, I listened to the guitar lines to “Lines on My Face.” A few in the audience cheer. The band enters, and then a solo.

“A solo to start a song?” I thought.

And what a solo. The first run, so fluid and technically perfect. Then the bends. Ideal vibrato. Another lightning fast run.

“Oh my god,” I thought, “who is this guitar player?” How could I not know this guy? That solo, which seemed like a throwaway improvisation was terrific.  Plus, this type of Major 7 jam was not something I heard a lot of. It wasn’t on Fillmore East or Live at Leeds.

Then, Frampton comes in with the lyrics, “Lines on my head…” the crowd nearly erupts, presumably as the super fans recognize the song.  The song continues.

Then another melodic solo. Good grief, the band interplay between the bass player and drummer, perfectly complementary to the lines of the Les Paul. The tom-tom accents, the higher octave bass runs, all the time leaving space for everything to be heard.  These are good musicians.  Frampton concludes with another incredible flourish of notes which is greeted by a very appropriate smattering of applause for the solo.

Frampton then sings, “There’s so many people, my family, and friends.” The crowd, hanging on every word, applauds again.

The audience is fully engaged.

What the hell am I listening to? Who is this Frampton guy, where did he come from? Who does concerts like this, anyway I so want to be there, watching this?

Wait! I sort of am there – perhaps that’s why I am so sucked in.

Meanwhile, the song dramatically turns to the minor key. Like David Gilmore does years later in “Comfortably Numb,” Frampton delivers an incredible overdriven emotional solo, that builds and builds with trills and double stops to close it out. When he finishes, the crowd approves.

The band regroups, and Frampton goes back to major mode.

The song ends.

Wow. I mean, really, wow. That was something.

Still is, as I’ve listened to “Lines on My Face” thousands of times through the years. I’ve also seen him play it live and it remains a real showcase for his guitar playing.

FCA was the high watermark for Peter Frampton and despite going on to win Grammy’s and tour with others, it will always be FCA for which he is most remembered.

Perspective

Nostalgia is a messy business, as it’s still mostly self-referential and I dare say, a bit romanticised. So take this with some salt.

As I look back on “Lines on My Face,” what I think about most is innocence.

When I first heard that song it might have been during one of my last golden moments of pure innocence.  The purity in Frampton’s sound on that song that blended his clarion voice, his virtuoso guitar, the unabashed audience participation, all with that classic Major 7/minor chord tension was in complete sync with where I was at that moment. As teen high schooler I was between the major and minor in my life and would love a crowds approval.

Plus, as a guitar player, because I could honestly “hear” all the notes and nuance behind the music feeling what was behind them. The song spoke to me. For that day, it seemed to do so uniquely.

It was an “all is right in the world” moment that if we’re lucky we get to experience a few times in our lives. If we’re doubly lucky, that moment is tagged to something like a song that we can revisit again and again.

“Lines on My Face” is that for me.

Funny isn’t it, how I was hoping for a soda and some snacks, and instead got a moment of transcendence.

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Mad Men – Final Episode – Farewell

mad-menAMC’s watershed, Mad Men, winner of multiple “best dramatic series” Emmys is about to wrap up its last season.  This show has been so good, especially in the first seasons, that it has a set a bar for itself that is almost impossible to reach year after year.

Those first seasons were remarkable in their art direction, pacing, and very skillful characterizations by (then) mostly unknown actors. Creator/writer Matthew Weiner’s steady development of the characters who inhabit and orbit the Sterling Cooper agency against the backdrop of the “everything is possible” early 1960s world of Madison Avenue – has been simply irresistible.  It’s also been wildly funny.  A great run.

But it has been in the development of protagonist Don Draper (expertly played by Jon Hamm) where Wiener has hit solid gold.  Don Draper is as strong a character as TV has seen. The indelible image of  Draper with his white shirt, dark suit, and skinny tie once seen is impossible to shake. Add to that his Brylcreem hair, cigarette and cocktail in hand you have what has become a cultural icon. Popular culture can now interject “the Don Drapers of the world” or “the bygone days of Don Draper” into casual conversation, and most will have a sense of what they are talking about.

Don is more than a one-dimensional stereotype.  While Don is talented and impossibly handsome, he is also deeply troubled – much more than one would expect.  His checkered past – mysterious – is almost always at odds with his brilliance as a creative force in advertising.  After seven seasons of seeing Don be a sleaze-bag using his looks to “have his way” with the women around him – we still feel for him. He isn’t sure what is driving him to do what he does.  It is like he can’t help himself. The fact that Hamm and the show’s writers have kept such a morally despicable character interesting and a sympathetic one week after week is an amazing accomplishment. Much of the credit here belongs to Hamm whose performance is never less than remarkable.

Unfortunately for Hamm, however, AMC’s sister show Breaking Bad (and their actors) have robbed him for multiple years of a much deserved Emmy. Perhaps with “Bad” over and done this year Hamm may have his day at the podium. He deserves it. It’s an excellent performance on par with any in TV.

Which brings us to now. The end. The last episode.

Will this be a grand finale tying together all the Dick Whitman loose ends? Will Betty and Don reunite?  How about Don and Peggy or even Joan?

Not a chance. No big ending tying it all together came with Don’s “Om” moment somewhere in CA (one suspect Esalen). This was just another small moment in the show full of many similar little ones.

Weiner has consistently told the story of how highly motivated people like Don, Roger, Peggy, and Joan continue to forge ahead despite their often hasty choices and their consequences.  Life, whether it be in the sixties with all that hubris, is always about finding eno

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Columbia House Record Club

This past week it was announced that you could no longer buy 11 albums for one penny as Columbia House – the most famous of the “record clubs” of the 1970’s – finally called it quits.

More lament for this aging baby boomer.

Several weeks ago I shared similar sentiments about how the modern-day versions of what we used to call “stereos” suck.  For those who were there and remembered, there was nothing like cranking the first Boston album on a pair of 12 inch 3-ways with at least 100 watts RMS.

Sorry, ear buds and compressed digital streams don’t compete with the stereo sound that would fill a room when two properly staged giant speakers were cranked up.  I can’t help think the vinyl version of Skrillex and Justin Bieber would sound better through a pair of Acoustic Research 3a stereo speakers than what you get when you stream it to a single Sonos.

Does anyone seriously argue this?

The Long Playing (LP) record.

The far bigger lament is for the record album. I’m not talking about the vinyl; I’m talking about the album itself. The packaging was a big part of the LPs appeal. The 12 x 12 canvas provided ample space to provide information about the songs, the musicians, and other recording details. In some rare instances, there were bizarre “liner notes.” Plus, the cover itself was sometimes considered “art.”

The album, when viewed during playback, could transport the listener to another world. This whole experience was a bit of shamanistic magic, especially when the double-album served as a rolling tray.

Former Rolling Stone record critic turned filmmaker Cameron Crowe captured this magic in his film “Almost Famous.” The scene where his 13-year-old protagonist drops the needle on the Who’s “Sparks” –  well, that is a great cinematic moment that reflected the experience of so many music-loving baby boomers.

The Record Club Itself.

It was the Columbia House Record Club that first brought this “magic” to me. 11 albums for a penny? Impossible!!!

I spent hours upon hours looking at the Columbia House ads in anticipation marking up which 11 records I’d buy if I could. Once I had a paper route (and steady income), my parents agreed to sign me up and let the then 12-year-old buy his 11 records.

Then that big box arrived. It was incredible. It was perhaps the best day of my young life.

That first order had some incredible records in it. “The History of Eric Clapton, ” “The Who – Who’s Next,” “Elton John – Honky Chateau,” and “Yes – Close to the Edge” to name a few.  In my teens, I would go on to buy hundreds of albums frittering away my youth looking at the album artwork trying to discern the meaning of the lyrics while reading them. I’m not alone in saying these albums, especially “Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky” and “The Who – Quadrophenia” helped me make it through high school.

Conclusion.

I know these record clubs get a bad rap for their “negative option billing” practice. This requirement would automatically send members each month the “featured” album (unless they returned the card saying they didn’t want it).  I didn’t mind, as it meant more records for my collection and exposure to new music. There was no Rhapsody then.

One last thing, unfortunately, I initially had to play these great records on my parents ginormous Magnavox console system – the modern stereo was yet to come.

magnavox console

RIP – Columbia House!

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Orphan Black

Summer is a bit of a bummer for people like me whose daily thrill is watching an hour of high quality TV.  Summer traditionally is a bit of desert for series that can be considered part of TV’s now over-a-decade-old Renaissance.

Summer series like Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” – well produced and interesting – simply don’t rise to the level of True Detective and Game of Thrones from HBO or Mad Men and Breaking Bad from AMC. That’s not to slight Ray Donovan. Jon Voight did give the performance of his life in a career full of wonderful ones. His performance was recognized with a well deserved Golden Globe for best supporting actor in very competitive field. Still, the series just misses for me, and I find myself not at all excited for its return this weekend.

I did find something fabulous to fill in the interim, the BBC America series Orphan Black. Wow!

This is the most consistently riveting BBC dramatic series since the 6-episode State of Play (later turning into a very good Russel Crowe film).

In case you don’t know Orphan Black has been a series with a heavy buzz.  Not only did this drama about clones make the cover of Entertainment Weekly, it also won scores of awards including the artistically coveted Peabody. It’s a wildly inventive mix of sci-fi and police-drama genres that is unique. While at times it feels like other shows, almost always it goes further in unexpected, often shocking, directions.

The most remarkable thing about this drama is a truly dazzling performance by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. Playing all the clones (about 9 in total thus far) this is the type of role that in less capable hands could sink the show by turning into camp. That never happens.

Maslany is completely believable because she does so much more that just put on a wig and glasses to transform herself into another clone. She fully embodies each personality. It’s very physically demanding set of performances reminding me a bit of Jennifer Garner star-making turn in Alias. Orphan Black is acting, writing, and directing coming together in the way all great series do.  This series is not to be missed by any fan of serialized drama.

This week when the Emmy Awards were announced, Maslany’s lack of being nominated for Season 2 raised a chorus of “snub” across the internet. Because she’s already won the Television Critics Award for best actress twice, this chatter is completely understandable. And seriously, as good as Julianna Margulies is in The Good Wife and Robin Wright is in House of Cards – they are only playing one role. Snub indeed.

The real hook for this series isn’t Maslany’s  performance. What makes this a show to watch right away is the overall craft of the storytelling executed by creators Graeme Mason and John Fawcett and their team on over a dozen of writers.  In this Game of Thrones world of serialized drama, shocking the audience has never been more difficult. Orphan Black shocks, over and over, never straying into the implausible. Keeping this up through another season will be tough.

All you need to do is start at the beginning and let it unfold.  You’ll see this isn’t “a stupid show about clones with cheesy effects” – as I feared it would. What you’ll find instead will be a completely original series, up there with the best from Television’s renaissance.

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Chef – Film Review

Movie buffs know Jon Favreau.

His answering machine antics in Swingers (1996) is one of THE memorable movie scenes of all time. He also wrote that movie.

Since then he’s become  a recognizable face to most casual movie goers appearing in dozens of mostly non-staring roles.

Arguably his greatest success has come from behind the camera. He directed Will Ferrel in Elf (2003) to become a new holiday classic.  More recently he directed Iron Man 1 and 2 to become worldwide blockbusters.

Chef is about a different kind of super hero. Chef is the story of a dad finding himself while simultaneously reconnecting with his 10 year-old son. It is very loosely based on the journey made by chef Roy Choi who went from high class restaurant to food truck.

Chef is chock full of ridiculous contrivances and “cat’s in the cradle” stereotyping that could really take you out of the movie if you paid attention to them, but you won’t.

This is because the movie is incredibly charming on so many levels. The actors, the locations, the music, and oh-my-god, the food. Chef Choi was “involved in every food scene” said Favreau.

I have never seen a more beautiful grilled cheese sandwich prepared and cooked than the one in this film.

So while we’re at it – let’s develop that analogy a bit.

Chef the movie is like a grilled cheese sandwich. Familiar, not spectacular, but when done well and served at the right time, the result can be incredibly satisfying.

Chef has great pacing, rich performances, great cameos and a wonderful closing homage to Cinema Paradiso that delivers a similar emotional wallop.

Favreau has really done well here. This is clearly a mature film made by a mature artist. His writing and directing are flawless.

Chef successfully achieves everything it aims for. It’s funny, sweet and poignant.  You almost totally forget how preposterous it is for Favreau to be bedding BOTH Scarlett Johansson and  Sofia Vergara. That’s saying something.

Given an R rating mostly for language and content. I can’t image this film offending anyone. A great start to the summer movie season for those with adult sensibilities.

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What to Binge – 2015

With so many truly great series coming to their conclusions in the past two years, the big question for those of us living lives of quiet desperation that require at least one hour a day of high-quality video entertainment is… what to watch?

The fall “first season” is over and now we are into TV’s “second season.” With shorter 10-episode seasons becoming the norm for cable this second season will not only usher in the return of some familiar series but will also give the launch of a few promising new series with great pedigrees.

There is also the very significant departure of AMC’s Mad Men. Perhaps the last remaining series that got this high-quality binge-watching TV ball rolling .

This begs the question we consumers of television’s renaissance have been silently wondering – is this run of wonderful serialized drama finally over? I know a lot of us thought it was last year.  Then, out of the blue, came True Detective restoring our hope that the next Sopranos, Friday Night Lights, or Breaking Bad was on the way.

With the fall conclusions of two B+ shows, Sons of Anarchy and Parenthood – what should I set my DVR to record?

Here is no particular order are my recommendations.

  • Game of Thrones –  Returning for its 5th season, HBO’s highest-cost-per-episode series promises this year to “kill off different folks from the book.” With dragons, the imp and George R.R. Martin’s source material, this is the best show on TV.
  • Mad Men – The show that put AMC on the map while creating new standards for realism detail in a period drama, the final 8 episodes of Don Draper’s sad and successful life are eagerly anticipated April 5. Could this be the best last season payoff since Breaking Bad? How can you not find out?
  • Orphan Black – BBC’s wonderfully odd futuristic series about clones is more than a just a showcase for Tatiana Maslany in her 10 + roles, it’s also highly entertaining keep-you-guessing drama. Premiere is April 18.
  • House of Cards – Kevin Spacey won the Emmy this year for his terrific portrayal of the amoral politician Frank Underwood on Netflix. Now president-elect, will this new place take the series over the top like Showtime’s Homeland? We’ll have to see when all the episodes become available Friday, February 27 for a weekend of binge watching.
  • BoschNew! – Amazon Prime just released this 10-episode series of best-selling author Michael Connelly’s chief protagonist Harry Bosch. Set in LA with a great cast. Will this be more Southland than Law and Order. Titus Welliver is terrific as Bosch.
  • Better Call SaulNew! – The latest from Breaking Bad’s team. The first three episodes on AMC were promising with a 10 minute standoff scene in episode 2 that was both brutal and hilarious. Where will it go?  Will Walter White show up? Can Bob Odenkirk carry a series? On now.
  • The Good Wife – Returning March 1, this is broadcast TVs best show. CBS’s episodic, perfectly cast, wonderfully written (mostly by husband and wife team of Robert and Michelle  King) has great energy and keeps getting better every year.
  • Veep – Yes one comedy here. While Larry David continues on hiatus from Curb Your Enthusiasm (now appearing on Broadway in an original show), this is TVs smartest comedy. Julia Louis Dreyfus is simply amazing at being horrible and likable at the same time. Returns to HBO April 12.

I’m sure there are some favorites I missed. Walking Dead, Homeland, Masters of Sex, True Detective, Outlander, Fargo and the Blacklist. Some won’t be back until summer, others simply aren’t my favorites.

Whatever the case, some excellent TV is on the way.

 

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Wrecking Crew – Edited

Denny Tedesco, son of studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco, has made the best film ever about the Los Angeles studio scene in the 1960s and 1970s. It is called the The Wrecking Crew and will be released in selected theaters and available for streaming March 13. This release comes after many years of limited showings due to music royalty issues for the 100+ songs referenced in the film.  A recent round of funding from kickstarter has finally allowed Tedesco to release his movie through Magnolia Pictures.

The Wrecking Crew is part valentine from a son to his father and part nostalgic look back at the LA recording studio music scene. Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, and many other LA based artists/producers were cranking out a new type of hit song that, unbeknownst to the public, were fueled the contributions of these unsung musicians (including Tedesco). These new, younger, studio musicians who favored casual clothes to the suits of their predecessors were said to be “wrecking the business.” Hence the label, The Wrecking Crew.

What makes this film work is that the senior Tedesco was a the real deal. He played on thousands of gigs. He was an amazingly versatile player who could read music and whose professionalism put him in the orbit of so many significant artists, musicians and recording sessions. Younger Tedesco does not need to overstate anything about his father’s accomplishments as they speak for themselves.

In addition to playing on such notable guitar heavy tracks as “The Bonanza Theme” and “The Batman Theme” Mr. Tedesco further endeared himself to thousands of young guitarists in the 1970s through his Studio Log column in Guitar Player magazine. Each month he would recount the gig, the music, and how much he earned all with his great sense of humor that comes through vividly on the film.

But it was his connection with other studio musicians that provides the real narrative for the film. It’s obvious that his peers, specifically drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye really enjoyed working with him.

The Wrecking Crew is about the songs and the stories about the musicians who made them.  The anecdotes about the bass line for the “The Beat Goes On”  and “Good Vibrations” or the opening lick to Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and the kick drum count-in to “A Taste of Honey” are really interesting. These are shared by the musicians themselves often illustrating them with their instruments.

What also comes through is the camaraderie between these musicians. Some of the best parts of the film are the musicians sitting around a table reminiscing and yucking it up with each other after all these years. This real and genuine affinity is impossible to stage.

The talking heads assembled in the film are impressive. Record company founders like Herb Alpert and Lou Adler bring some gravitas to business side of things while providing a sense of how much luck and improvisation were involved in theses early days. They had no idea this music would have the longevity it did going on to become the soundtrack to a generation.  For many of these musicians it was simply another gig.

Because of the length of this project took in coming to release, some of the key players (including Tedesco in 1997) have passed on. So too have some of the talking heads like Dick Clark who is here in full voice and health. The silver lining to the delayed release is that Denny Tedesco has been able to add the original release (2008) with some more recollections from other musicians not included on the previous edit. With all the extras, this should be a terrific DVD.

This DVD is a must have alongside Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), Respect Yourself – The Stax Records Story (2007), and Muscle Shoals (2013) that also deal with studio musician’s contributions to popular music. Of those three this is my favorite.

Sadly, home studios, software and loops have come to replace the Wrecking Crew generation where musicianship and songwriting were front and center.  Now anyone with a computer can slap together a song. Heck, they can even do it their phone.

The days of the Wrecking Crew was a time when LA, with unheralded thanks to these great songwriters and musicians, could actually compete toe to toe with the Beatles and Motown.

I’m sure Tommy Tedesco would be proud of what his son has accomplished in paying proper respect after all these years.

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Mad Men – Final Season

AMC’s watershed, Mad Men, winner of multiple “best dramatic series” Emmys is about to enter its last season(s).  Mad Men will follow the precedent set by sister show Breaking Bad, stretching the limits of the word “final” by splitting the last set of 20 episodes across two years.

This series has been so good, especially in the first seasons, that it has a set a bar for itself that is almost impossible to reach year after year. For many fans last year was a bit of disappointment lacking the surprise and novelty of earlier seasons. Still, Mad Men remained both an entertaining and nostalgic show – even for those too young to have actually lived during the featured era.

This is partly because Jon Hamm’s portrayal of series protagonist Don Draper is one for the ages.  The Draper character is that perfect blend of writer and actor coming together to create something truly both unique and fantastic. Played by Hamm Draper has become something iconic – a new cultural reference. When someone now says “the Don Draper’s of the world” we know what they are talking about.

With his white shirt, dark suit, skinny tie, and Brylcreem hair Don is the embodiment of a particular kind of old cool – cool that included cigarettes and cocktails.  And shameless drive.  Whether Don is pitching a business deal or seducing his next woman – he generally gets what he wants. And most infuriating, Don almost always does this without apology.

Heading west again to California in this last season – writer Matt Wiener has hinted at extensive changes and new characters. Fans will have to wait and see what Don, having revealed his secret Dick Whitman identity to his kids, will do next. At this point, it’s completely unpredictable.

Can Don find peace with himself during this “peace man!” era of sitars, pot, and Nixon. After all, in California anything is possible. And when Don is on his game, he can do almost anything.

The terrific cast of equally fully formed characters – Roger Sterling, Peggy Olsen, Pete Campbell and Joan Harris – are all returning.

How will they interact and resolve their own conflicts?   That’s why we watch.

The challenge for Mad Men finding the kind of audiences that Breaking Bad and Walking Dead have, is with the show slow and deliberate pace. It’s always been a bit draggy with the plot – no “red weddings” here. Just brilliantly written and acted offering insightful studies of character and the impact of their choices. Perhaps a bit too highbrow for the mainstream. First week ratings were disappointingly down from last year.

Hopefully, the pace will quicken, and the resolution will ring true – something that did not happen in the 1970’s.

Mad Men is on AMC Sunday evenings.

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Game of Thrones –

HBO’s Game of Thrones returns this weekend. As fans follow the saga of the Starks and Lannisters heading into a four-decade-long winter, one wonders whether there will there be a moment as startling as the “red wedding” of season 3? And what about Calesi and her dragons?

Season 4 may prove to be Throne’s most watched yet – second only to The Sopranos regarding popularity for HBO. Why is this? What makes this show so fascinating and terrific?

Three game changers.

First – the depth of the story. It’s epic. And grand.

Bayonne New Jersey’s son-of-a-longshoreman George R.R. Martin’s 694-page A Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice released in 1996 immediately became a sensation earning critical acclaim and a Hugo Award nomination. Martin’s tale of seven families set in a world part medieval/part fantasy told through three distinct narratives with multiple point-of-views was writing of the highest order. This was a novel that challenged readers while entertaining them.  Plus, his matter-of-fact twist on fantastical elements like dragons and “magic” was something fresh to the fantasy genre.

It’s no surprise that increased popularity followed each later release of the proposed 7-volume series ( 2 to go). What also followed were more characters, more points of view, and yet more complexity to the story.  Merely attempting to adapt a work as dense as this to the screen was a game changer. The fact that it has not become a true epic fail, it a real credit to HBO and producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Second – the budget – biggest ever for a series.

275 actors per season, international locations, elaborate costumes, and special effects that never seem cheesy obviously cost a fortune. Telling a story this grand, and doing it well, requires an ambitious budget to go with it. HBO is clearly all in spending $5-10 million per episode. The highest of any show in history.

Credit HBO’s checkbook for upping their game-changing ante.

Third – killing off main characters – no one is safe.

In season one when Ned Stark is beheaded, it’s completely shocking and unexpected. For eight episodes he’s been the narrative focus and protagonist of the story. Then episode nine – off with his head! It’s utterly startling. HBO had to actually defend themselves for following the storyline found in the novel as “internet chatter” showed disappointment and outrage.

This was not Trapper John from M*A*S*H going down in a helicopter crash to accommodate an actor’s contract – this was part of the story.  And once this idea that anyone could die was introduced viewers were then on the edge of their seats wondering, “who’s next?”

Good thing because more carnage followed taking with them more familiar characters. That’s the world of Game of Thrones and another game changer.

So set your DVRs and get ready. Season 4 is about to start.

Regardless of whatever happens with the Whitewalkers in Winterfell,  one question remains. Will you watch them one at a time or wait to binge watch them all?

Bonus Commentary

While killing off main characters worked for GOT, I’m not sure it works well for other shows. This year two other series, House of Cards and The Good Wife both took out main characters in unexpected ways that smelt like a bit of an homage to GOT. Hopefully, this stops. What if Dr. House was killed in the first season? Not much of a show there.

 

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Napster – Film Review

Napster was incredible. Ask anyone who remembers.

Peer-to-peer file sharing – a simple and brilliant idea flawlessly executed – gained tens of millions of fans in the span of months and simultaneously took down an industry. More than a decade later, that industry still feels Napster’s ripples.

Two guys under 20. Some venture money. Silicon Valley. Unprecedented growth. 9th circuit court of appeals. Super attorney David Boies. Then a BK.

What a story!

Not sure Napster’s story is fully told in Alex Winter’s documentary Downloaded, but there is more than enough here to fascinate any fan of music, silicon valley start-ups, or entrepreneurs.

The VH1-produced film gained some buzz at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) and is available for free download from AOL at http://on.aol.com/show/downloaded-517844010/main.

Told almost 100% by the key players who were there, Downloaded entertainingly zips along glossing over dozens of details worth closer examination.  This is not a very deep film and Winter, an actor in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, does a journeyman’s job of simply telling the tale.

Founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker tell most of the story. Both were huge music fans and really, that was secret to Napster’s appeal. It was great for music fans. People like myself who had thousands of CDs, could now via dialup, share hard-to-find tracks in exchange for other hard-to-find tracks. It was fantastic.

Here was music I would gladly pay for, but was simply unavailable. Now with Napster was it not only available, but it was also free.

The record companies get off a little easy here with only modest demonization. Let us not forget that CDs price had risen to $16.99 in the late 1980s while their manufactured cost was less than a dollar. Fans and artists alike had much angst toward the music companies.

Attorney Boies, always articulate and interesting, makes no comments here. That might have raised the film’s profile.

Peer-to-peer bit torrents, which back-filled internet users need for free tunes once Napster was shut down, are neither mentioned or explained. Nor is there any mention of the Pirate Bay, the world’s most notorious P2P that was shut down in a dramatic raid by police.

But this is not a film that digs into the weeds of Intellectual Property (IP) rights on the internet. It simply tells the story of Napster.

And what a story it is.