Friday, July 17, 2015

Of Flip Sides and Firesigns

So, in my previous post, A Nick in Time for Firesign, I wrote about the significance of the passing of Phil Austin, the second of the four members of Firesign Theatre that we have lost over the past few years. And I wrote about Austin's most memorable character, Nick Danger, and included the audio recording of "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," which appeared on the second record album Firesign Theatre released, back in 1969.

I want to follow up on that post now, and note again that the Firesign Theatre produced comedy audio recordings that were entirely unique, not recordings of stand up routines like most other albums in that category, nor recordings of film and television soundtracks, a la most Monty Python albums. No, what they did, drawing on a background in radio, was to produce spoken word comedy that was multilayered, complex, and comparable to music.

Paul Heyer, drawing on Marshall McLuhan, has written about Orson Welles, and makes references to his media sense, the fact that Welles understood the nature of the particular medium he was working with, and utilized its biases to full effect, whether it was film (e.g., Citizen Kane, generally considered the greatest film ever made), or live theater, or radio, notably the notorious 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. And media sense is as good a way to characterize the Firesigns as any. They understood the concept of acoustic space, and were able to produce elaborate soundscapes that were so much more than simulating the experience of listening to performers up on a stage.

So, now, in that previous post, I explained that "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" was one of their most accessible recordings, as well as their most popular overall, which makes it a great way to introduce the group to anyone not familiar with them. And I explained that "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" took up all of side 2 of their second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, and that there were a couple of references to the other side of the album.

Okay, so now, let's get to side 1 of the album, shall we? If you want to just go ahead and listen to it, here it is, right after the next paragraph. Actually this is the complete album, so once the first side concludes, the second side plays. And that does make it easy to connect the reference in "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" to the segment it specifically refers to on side 1. 

When I reviewed this clip, I noticed it was interrupted by commercials, something new on YouTube, and even less desirable than the other forms of advertising that can be tagged onto videos. The ads show up as yellow bands on the timeline at the bottom of the video, where the red area represents the portion of the video that you have passed and the gray what is yet to come. You can move the marker up and down to access different points on the video, and I found that if I go through the commercials one time, and then go back, the video plays straight through a second time. Since the interruptions ruin the effect of the recording, I recommend moving the marker to each of the ads ahead of time, so that once you've paid the piper, you can listen to the album uninterrupted, the way it was meant to be.

So, now, as I noted in my last post, "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" is more mainstream, in being a single radioplay parody of an episode from an old time adventure series. The other side is more surreal, and also a better example of how their recordings are like music. It's divided into 6 or 7 tracks (depending on whether you go by the original record album or CD reissue), but the tracks are a fiction, not really being separated from one another. Instead, the side forms one long, hallucinogenic, well, trip I guess you could say. But for what it's worth, I looked up the Wikipedia entry on the album, and here's the track listings they had:

Side one

"How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All" – 28:27:

"Drink to Me Only with Thine Fox" (Mr. Catherwood and Ensemble) [CD retitle: "The Ralph Spoilsport Mantrum"] – 4:21

"The Policemen's Brawl" (Officers Bradshaw and Henderson) [CD retitle: "Zeno's Evil"] – 4:34

"Yankee Doodle Came to Terms" (All Fecal People's Chorus) [CD retitle: "The Land of the Pharaohs"] – 2:47

"Über Dubbing Over Alice" ('Arry 'N' Friends) [CD Track retitle: "VACANCY-NO VACANCY"] – 1:34

"You Ain't Got No Friends on the Left" (Babe and the Unknown Soldiers) [CD retitle: "The Lonesome American Choo-Choo Don' Wan' Stop Here Any Mo'"] – 7:34

""We're Bringing the War Back Home!" From Babes in Khaki" (Lilly Lamont*) (*Miss Lamont Courtesy of Paranoid Pictures) – 7:31 [split into 2 tracks on the CD, track titles below]:
"Babes in Khaki" – 3:53

"TV or Not TV" – 3:38
(This side of the vinyl LP was not divided into separate tracks, but the liner notes list the above titles and tracks.)

Side two

The Further Adventures of Nick Danger – 28:11

"From the Archives of the Original Firesign Theatre Radio Hour. As First Broadcast December 6, 1941. Rebroadcast Courtesy of Loostners Bros. Soap Co."

So, the album begins with a parody of a radio ad for a car dealer (the Firesigns started out doing radio in Los Angeles, after all), then slips into a customer being shown a car, buying it, and driving off. If you are new to this sort of listening experience, you have to be a little patient with it, because the next sequence is the one I would especially point to as a brilliant example of creating a sense of acoustic space, as the Firesigns generate the feel of driving down a highway via talk alone, by giving voice to the signs you would see as you pass them by. There is also a wonderful little bit involving Zeno's Paradox included in this segment. They then move into a bit of an Alice in Wonderland sequence that winds up taking us to the "Land of the Pharaohs," and a hotel, where we get a sequence involving patriotic song and a parody of American history straight out of the 50s. That brings us into a parody of an old war movie, set during the Second World War, which then turns out to be broadcast on television, so there's a bit of channel flipping, and a return to the car dealer commercial that somehow slips into the finale of James Joyce's Ulysses!

How's that for a recap? It is truly difficult to do the recording justice with any kind of summary, but I hope this helps to get a sense of it all across to you, if you have not listened to it yet. 

The first side actually does have a reference to side 2, towards the end, when the channel flipping briefly lands on some kind of crime drama, and a couple of guys are talking about how they hate cops, and one of them says he's going to get even with them, the punchline being that he's going to do so by turning in his badge. And the character saying that is named Nick, presumably the same Nick Danger who is the hero on side 2, before he became a private detective. So the album has self-reflexive moments where it acknowledges that it is an album on both side 1 and side 2.

And one last point. Again, in my previous post, I provided a bit of explanation about the significance of record albums having two sides, and I want to emphasize the importance of the concept of the side. I remember it being said that iTunes in some sense retrieved the single, which in the early days of rock and roll from the late 50s to the mid 60s was the format emphasized in popular music. But singles were not purchased as individual songs, but as little 45 rpm records, and you may be buying it for the song on the A side, but it also came with another song on the B side. And that was not the same thing as downloading one isolated song. B sides often held unexpected surprises, and delights. They were listened to.

Anyway, when the emphasis shifted to record albums, sometimes we'd just play one track on the album, but often we'd put the album on and let it play through. But that meant play through the one side. It was quite common to play a side, then rather than flip it over to the other, switch the record to another album, and just play one side from that record. That was how we experienced recordings. The fundamental unit was the side, not the song, and not the album. With CDs, the side as a unit disappeared, except as a notation in track listings.

And I want to point out that sides really were a good unit to use. A side was usually at least 15 minutes, and less than 30 minutes. As a unit of time, it felt just right. So while it was perfectly fine to listen to both sides of an album, a recording like How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All would often be heard as isolated sides. And if you were going to listen to the whole album at one sitting, you would have to get up after side 1 was over, and flip the album over to listen to side 2. You could not help but be aware of the side as a unit.

So, the side as a unit is something that has been lost, for all intents and purposes, with the transition from vinyl records to CDs and MP3s. And so has the idea of flipping the record, and with it, of flipping for the recording (or something or someone else), flipping out over the recording (or something or someone else), and of course, see ya on the flip side, flippity flip, and so, my friend flipper, over and out!

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