Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 313: Lightnin’ Strikes

Among the many underserved genres of Canadian film is the biography. And barely addressed at all is the sub-genre of the musical bio. As a result, the stories of home-grown stars from Hank Snow to The Guess Who to Nickleback may never be told.
For us, there’s been no “The Buddy Holly Story”, no “La Bamba”, not even an “American Hot Wax”. A few years ago, there was a much anticipated dramatization of the life of Shania Twain –- that concluded before she cut her first hit record.

I’m a big fan of rock and roll movies where you watch some talented teen struggle to find his voice and discover a signature sound that gets the whole world dancing.

For the most part they’re insignificant entertainments. But they’re always popular and usually revealing on where creativity comes from and how one artist both connects with and reflects his generation.

Over the years, I’ve pitched a few of those stories, at best meeting a complete lack of interest at the network and studio level or –- at worst – receiving the look that crosses Hugh Dillon’s face in “Hard Core Logo” every time he hears a Terry Jacks song in a bar.

Thus it remains a rich, un-mined vein in our culture. A library of stories so vast even American filmmakers have overlooked one of their own most unique and hard to define artists –- Lou Christie.

Born Luigi Alfredo Giovanni Sacco in suburban Pittsburgh, he began recording while still a teenager as “Lugee and the Lions” using his sister and a couple of her friends as back-up singers.

And right from the start nobody knew quite how or where to pigeon hole him. It wasn’t just that he wrote his own material and produced it, (virtually unheard of at the time) but his voice was –- well, Lou had a multi-octave range and made sure to use all of it.

From his earliest tracks, he would effortlessly move from a lilting tenor to a piercing falsetto (often a full octave higher than his back up girls) and back again, convinced he had only 15 seconds from needle drop to snag his audience with a sound they’d never heard before.

Even at a time when “The Four Seasons”, “Jan & Dean” and “The Beachboys” were all using falsetto, none had either the range or control of Luigi Sacco.

Nor did they share his desire to break new ground in Rock and Roll. From the age of 15, Luigi had been song-writing with self-described mystic Twyla Herbert, who vastly expanded his musical tastes and knowledge. And he convinced legendary producer Jack Nietzsche to help him design his distinctive sound.

It was Roulette Records that changed Luigi’s name to Lou Christie, informing him on the release of his first 45 for the label “The Gypsy Cried” in January of 1963.

The song became an immediate million seller which Christie followed with “Two Faces Have I” a mere 10 weeks later. It was an even bigger hit.

But Christie was already making enemies at Roulette, refusing to change lyrics or make musical alterations suggested by record execs who insisted they knew far more about the pop music business than he ever would.

So Roulette didn’t have any qualms about dropping him when he had to take a couple of years off to serve in the US Army.

Discharged in late 1965 with no recording contract and his star  eclipsed by the British Invasion, Christie should have been happy to be picked up by MGM in Los Angeles.

But he remained adamant about not taking MGM’s career advice and continued to push himself as an artist. He constantly experimented, often rewriting and re-recording the same song multiple times.

Frustrated with the endless tinkering and hoping to make an example of him, an MGM exec made a point of tossing Christie’s first demo in the trash. He was convinced to release the song anyway, if only to make the humiliation public. It became Lou Christie’s biggest hit –- “Lightning Strikes”.

By then critics were realizing that no one (including “The Beatles”) was packing as much creativity and musical exploration into three minute singles.

And before “Lightning Strikes” had begun to drop from its Number One spot on the hit parade, Christie released three more singles in one month that all charted. The last would fatally fracture his already rocky relationship with MGM.

“Rhapsody in the Rain” was based on Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” with a Chopin riff interwoven, and it vividly told the story of two kids making out in the backseat of their car.

The song was immediately banned by every major radio station in the country for being too explicit. And while compromising by issuing a revised version, Christie refused to stop pushing the envelope.

His next release, “Painter” was based on a Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”. MGM buried it.

Over the next few years, Christie bounced from label to label, finally so fed up with record executives he left the business, finding work as a ranch hand and on an off-shore oil rig in the North Sea.

He returned to release one last hit single “I’m Gonna Make You Mine” before moving on to writing and producing critically acclaimed concept albums and songs for movie soundtracks, including his inimitable version of “Beyond the Blue Horizon” for “Rain Man”.
By then, one of Rock’s most innovative artists had stepped out of the spotlight. Not driven away or with his popularity fading, just a guy only interested in trying something new.

If you don’t know Lou Christie’s music, he’s worth taking the time. A guy who caught the ear of a generation, leaving behind an indelible sound.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

“Lightning Strikes”

“Rhapsody in the Rain”

“Beyond The Blue Horizon”


Anonymous said...

Sorry, Jim. I'm with the networks on the musical biopics. I'd rather see Bachman and Cummings fighting rather than a pair of impersonators.

mikel said...

I think you may have addressed your own concern about the 'blank look' when you fall back to tell an interesting artist story.....and its an american. Certainly very interesting, but how about Rush's story? I'm sure you must have noticed that two years in a row saw "The Story of Anvil" and then Rush's documentary.

But I guess you are meaning 'the biopic', which actually isn't that common even in the US, and when they are done, its usually to poor box office draws and less critical acclaim (The Doors, comes to mind).

But I think it goes without saying in Canada that not only is the biopic 'underserved', what isn't?-apart from comedy satire shows.

A big part of that are those with the 'blank faces' you mention, but also the bureaucracy. I remember an interview with New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards, who had a story turned into a christmas special on CBC, and who said that he'd never work with 'those people' ever again. That's pretty telling when a novelist, who certainly doesn't make big money, would turn down any chance for a cheque and for their work to be seen by a bigger audience.

Cool post about Christie though, can't say I care for his falsetto, but its an interesting story of an artist with some scruples, makes me think more highly of him. I think Neil Young's story would be similarly interesting, as virtually everybody and his dog-even up to David Foster, tried to change his singing style.