Friday, November 25, 2011

Rock Bio #11: Black Sabbath

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for in the spring of 2010 ...

When four friends formed the Polka Tulk Blues Band in the late '60s in Birmingham, England, little did anyone know those blues would soon turn black—Polka Tulk morphed into Earth, and in 1969 Earth became Black Sabbath, the fathers of heavy metal.

Teenage friends Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Terry "Geezer" Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums) weren't making much headway with their brand of jazz-blues fusion, so Iommi cranked up the guitar solos and Osbourne let loose his inner banshee, spouting lyrics about black magic. Suddenly the band's self-titled debut album was climbing the UK charts in early 1970, and Sabbath was being mentioned in the same breath as Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Paranoid topped the charts later that year, the title track became a hit single, and "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" earned their places as concert staples.

Black Sabbath could do no wrong over the next three years, solidifying their reputation as masters of metal in the UK and the States with Master of Reality (1971), Black Sabbath Vol. 4 (1972), and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), whose title track became another concert staple.

The band's sixth album, Sabotage, stalled on the U.S. charts in '75, leading the band to question its musical direction: Iommi wanted to experiment, but Osbourne thought they should stick with what worked. Technical Ecstasy (1976) favored some of Iommi's new ideas, such as the addition of keyboards, and in late '77 Osbourne quit the band. He returned just a few months later, but after one more album, 1978's Never Say Die!, he left for a successful solo career.

Black Sabbath replaced Osbourne with Rainbow's former frontman, Ronnie James Dio, whose initial effort with the band, 1980's Heaven and Hell, met with approval from fans, selling over a million copies. Ward then left the band for health reasons and was replaced with Vinny Appice. The new drummer's first Sabbath album was 1981's Mob Rules, but it was also his last (for the time being, anyway)—he departed with Dio after the lead singer fell out with Iommi and Butler over the final mix of Live Evil (1982).

The band then went through many rounds of musical chairs. Ward replaced his replacement, and ex-Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan became Sabbath's new vocalist long enough to record and tour behind 1983's Born Again. Butler quit, and Ward quit a second time, but the original lineup did reunite for Live Aid in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. By the late '80s groups like Iron Maiden and Metallica were the new reigning metal gods; with only Iommi remaining from the original quartet, Black Sabbath appeared to be on life support.

Against all odds, a move from longtime label Warner Bros. to I.R.S. Records in 1989 reignited the band's spirit, with new lead singer Tony Martin and drummer Cozy Powell adding raw power to the title track of Headless Cross, among other cuts. Tyr followed in 1990, and though Iommi reassembled this lineup for 1995's Forbidden, in between he brought back Butler, Dio, and Appice for Dehumanizer (1992).

Finally, in December of '97 the original lineup reunited for two concerts in their native Birmingham; the results were captured on the live album Reunion (1998). The band toured through the end of the millennium, and in 2007 the Iommi-Butler-Dio-Appice lineup of Black Sabbath toured under the name Heaven & Hell to promote the Rhino Records compilation The Dio Years, featuring three new songs from that lineup. In 2009 Heaven & Hell released their debut album, The Devil You Know.

Whatever the configuration, Black Sabbath continues to keep heads banging with 40 years of classic metal. Never say die, indeed.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

kinda sorta TV reviews for tweens and teens (i.e., shows I watched this year and wrote about for school)

The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes! (Disney XD, 2010-present; ages 6 and up)

The animated series featuring Marvel Comics' most celebrated "all-star" superhero team begins by showing its individual heroes in action before they joined forces, with entire episodes focusing on Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Ant-Man and Wasp. Later on in season one, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Panther join the existing team, which must round up all the supervillains who've escaped from four specially designed prisons during a mysterious breakout. Earth's mightiest heroes must learn on the job how to communicate effectively with each other while also building trust and respecting what each person brings to the team (teachers, allow the Avengers to show your students how group projects are done). But, most importantly, they must remember to stay out of the Hulk's way when he's angry.

I like how The Avengers takes its time establishing the characters and their personalities. That way the viewer can see certain conflicts coming and therefore will anticipate the fallout between, say, Thor and the Hulk. The action seems fairly standard as far as animated superhero shows go, though both bad guys and (minor) good guys die, which was never the case on Super Friends 30 years ago. Fans of The Avengers are surely looking forward to the big-screen version of the comic book that opens next summer, but the animated series just may give it a run for its money in the storytelling department. (To see a promo for The Avengers, click here.)

JONAS, a.k.a. JONAS L.A. (Disney Channel, 2009-2010; ages 8-14)

JONAS started out as a sitcom in which the bubblegum-rock Jonas Brothers trio—Joe, Kevin, and Nick—would play secret agents; the title of the show stood for "Junior Operatives Networking as Spies." But after shooting one episode, the spy concept was abandoned for a simpler premise in which the three siblings, renamed the Lucas brothers, would balance high school with the pressures of being world-famous rock stars. Jonas just happened to be the name of the street they lived on in this iteration of the show, though the acronym-like spelling of the title was retained. After a poorly received first season, JONAS was retooled and became JONAS L.A., with the brothers moving to southern California. Despite the change in scenery, the ratings didn't improve, and JONAS L.A. was canceled near the end of 2010.

JONAS is pretty airheaded, even for a Disney Channel tween show, and can't hold a candle to The Monkees, one of its TV inspirations, but it does teach kids the importance of looking out for one's siblings, not to mention lip-synching one of your own songs with a certain amount of accuracy so you don't look like a fool on camera. An educational tie-in could revolve around Kevin's song "I Left My Heart in Scandinavia": students would be asked to locate the region of Scandinavia on a map, then follow a teacher's made-up clues to find where exactly in the region—Denmark, Norway, or Sweden—Kevin left his heart, all the while learning interesting facts about those three countries. (To see a promo for JONAS L.A., click here.)

Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide (Nickelodeon, 2004-2007; ages 10-14)

This Nickelodeon sitcom centers on Ned Bigby (Devon Werkheiser), a Ferris Bueller type who breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the tween audience at home when explaining the dos and don'ts of middle school survival. His two best friends are Cookie (Daniel Curtis Lee), the biggest black nerd to hit the airwaves since Steve Urkel, and Moze (Lindsey Shaw), the girl next door who's beginning to catch Ned's eye, and vice versa. Created by Scott Fellows (Big Time Rush), Ned's Declassified has more than its share of silly, cartoonlike comedy, thanks in part to the school janitor's (Daran Norris) seemingly endless pursuit of a weasel (shades of Bill Murray's character in the 1980 movie Caddyshack) and Daniel Curtis Lee's Herculean feats of overacting.

Ned's Declassified is upfront about its lessons, going so far as to post its informational tidbits on screen, such as "Need cash fast? Try babysitting, pet care, and cleaning services," which is preceded by Ned pointing out that you have to be 14 years old to work in a store but not 14 to earn money in other ways. Teachers can add to Ned's long list of helpful hints by asking students to contribute survival tips of their own that weren't covered during the series's three-year run.

True Jackson, VP (Nickelodeon, 2008-2011; ages 8-14)

Nickelodeon's sitcom about 15-year-old True Jackson (Keke Palmer), who's plucked from obscurity to be vice president of youth apparel for a major fashion line, is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy for girls. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but True Jackson, VP doesn't dig far beyond the surface of its premise, saddling True with goofy best friends (played by Ashley Argota and Matt Shively), a quirky boss (Greg Proops), and an ice-queen colleague (Danielle Bisutti) who eventually thaws and treats True as an equal. Nothing new here, and it's hard to shake the feeling that since True is black, the producers saw no need to create other black characters to inhabit her world (Lulu and Ryan, her best friends, are Asian-American and white, respectively; True's parents appear in one episode each).

That being said, True Jackson, VP features a lead character who doesn't abandon her friends once she lands a great job (how or even if she fits school into her schedule is another matter altogether) and doesn't let jealous, condescending coworkers bring her down, both of which are good examples for tweens to live by. A question teachers could ask students after a viewing of True Jackson is "How would you react if one of your best friends suddenly became rich and famous? Would you treat him or her differently than you had before?" (To see a clip from True Jackson, VP, click here.)

Wizards of Waverly Place (Disney Channel, 2007-2011; ages 6-14)

This multiethnic take on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books revolves around the Russo family's three siblings, Justin (David Henrie), Alex (Selena Gomez), and Max (Jake T. Austin), all of whom have magical powers inherited from their Italian-American father, Jerry (David DeLuise), a former wizard. Their Mexican-American mother, Theresa (MarĂ­a Canals Barrera), is powerless, so to speak, and after the siblings complete their wizard training and face off in a competition to see who will become the family wizard of their generation, the two losing siblings will no longer be able to perform magic.

Unlike Miley Cyrus and company on Hannah Montana, the cast of Wizards of Waverly Place don't stomp on every punchline to get a laugh, making the show more palatable for parents who may want to watch alongside their children. (I also enjoyed the no-big-deal aspect of the family's multiculturalism.) It's easy to imagine Gomez and Henrie moving on to successful acting careers as adults in the near future.

Wizards provides important lessons about being honest with your friends while not giving away secrets about your family that could damage their reputations, and it teaches tweens to appreciate what they have—in this case, magical powers—because one day it might not be there anymore, e.g., childhood. As an educational tie-in, teachers could ask students to do without their "magic" cell phones for a day and see what problems they encounter without them in the real world. (To see a clip from Wizards of Waverly Place, click here.)

The Wonder Years (ABC, 1988-1993; ages 11 and up)

ABC's Emmy-winning "dramedy," now available through Netflix instant streaming, looked back nostalgically but pointedly at the late 1960s and early '70s, when the Vietnam war was raging overseas and the sexual revolution was making heads spin at home. As the series begins, 12-year-old Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) is entering seventh grade, and by the end of his first day in middle school, love and death have intertwined in such a bittersweet way that The Wonder Years's pilot episode became, in my opinion, one of the most memorable debuts in TV history.

Although The Wonder Years was conceived in the late '80s as a family show that could appeal to both baby boomers and their children, the fact that every episode is told from the point of view of Kevin, who also narrates the various trips down memory lane as an adult 20 years later (Daniel Stern provides the voice-overs), makes it ideal viewing for tweens of today's generation. Part of the show's evergreen appeal is that it proves adolescent hell remains the same throughout time, whether you're carrying a transistor radio in your hand or an iPod.

The Wonder Years's peripheral focus on American history of the '60s and '70s can be used for educational purposes to explain how soldiers in wars fought by the U.S. used to be drafted for service, how the "hippie" counterculture compares with the "Occupy Wall Street" movement of today, and how vastly technology has changed in 40 years (a family's first color TV back in those days is almost the equivalent of a family's first smartphone today). The Wonder Years also provides touching lessons about loyalty to friends, the danger of classroom gossip, and respect for institutions that are slowly dying but still matter (in one episode Kevin gets a part-time job working at a mom-and-pop hardware store whose business has fallen off since the new mall opened). (To see a clip from The Wonder Years, click here.)