Who Are The Isley Brothers of Foresight?: Hidden Currents and George Lipsitz’s Footsteps in the Dark

In 1992, a consignment of around thirty thousand bath toys was lost from the Ever Laurel, a container ship bound from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. During a storm in the North Pacific Ocean, several containers were washed overboard, including one bearing “Friendly Floatees”. These Chinese-made toys took the form of red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles, and yellow ducks, and when the container holding them broke open, the Floatees were free to travel the oceans.

File:Sitka, Alaska (7708801150).jpg
Sitka, Alaska by Wikipedia user Christopher Michel – CC BY-SA 2.0

Ten months after the spill, most of these bath toys arrived on the beaches near Sitka, Alaska, but not all of them shared this fate. A number spent the winter of 1992-93 frozen in the ice of the Bering Sea. Some floated back into the North Pacific, and yet others made their way through the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic. Oceanographers eagerly studied their unexpected trajectories, which revealed previously unknown information about ocean currents.

footstepsIn his book Footsteps in the Dark, the American historian George Lipsitz uses this event to explore how cultural phenomena such as pop music also circulate via hidden currents, finding new life and new uses in different times and different places around the world.

He describes how KC and the Sunshine Band found their sound by combining influences from Pentecostal Christianity, doo-wop, Santería drumming and Bahamian “junkanoo” carnival music; how the infectious beat of Dion’s “The Wanderer” has its roots in the Italian tarantella; how a composition by George Clinton of Parliament owes its “operatic” quality to synagogue chanting which Clinton heard in childhood at a schoolfriend’s bar mitzvah.

Lipsitz also attends to the social uses of such music. Analysing the Isley Brothers number which gives his book its title, he considers it an account of 1970s Black American experiences which were neglected by journalists and historians:

“As far as we know, the Isley Brothers did not intend to be historians of these changes or even to create a historical record of them with their music. They never chose to present an empirical accounting of events organized in chronological order, nor did their songs speak directly about politics, laws, or leaders. The Isley Brothers did not do research in traditional archives filled with government documents, personal records, or diaries of famous people. Yet they displayed extraordinary familiarity with and knowledge of what we might call the alternative archives of history, the shared memories, experiences, and aspirations of ordinary people, whose perspectives rarely appear in formal historical archival collections.”

Lipsitz gives us the tools to look not only at the past, but also the future, through lenses we might have previously neglected: sifting pop culture for overlooked clues to social change, examining cultural movements to understand the hidden currents which drive them, and making meaning from the “Friendly Floatees” which have drifted away from the course prescribed by the dominant social, political, and economic order.

“My hope,” he writes, “is that reading popular music as history and interpreting history through popular music will help us to hear the footsteps in the dark, to see how history happens and why music matters.” I believe that Lipsitz’s book also has much to teach us about the way we look at the future. Read more

Marvellous, Electrical: Distant Lands Are Not So Far Away

Pop stars at the fall of Communism. A man who builds imaginary tools to solve problems that never were. A mining engineer who made a ten-tonne truck disappear through a metre-wide tunnel.

Approaching the end of the year and the final instalments of Marvellous, Electrical, we’re joined by two humble figures with secret artistic careers.

Andy MacDonald, factory supervisor at Queensland’s Cobb + Co Museum, recounts a life spanning mining, sculpture, stage design, and jet fighter maintenance in Part 1 of The Fitter And The Handyman.

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Then Alf Klimek, doing odd jobs and broadband installation in Melbourne, reveals an unexpected career as a Berlin-based Cold War pop star.

You can also see two years’ back catalogue of Marvellous, Electrical over at the newsletter’s Google Maps page. Distant lands are not so far away…

LIANZA #Open2017 – Future Sound of Libraries / B-sides and rarities

This is the final part of a series on the LIANZA #Open17 library conference.

So you’ve seen how we planned a keynote where the main speaker keeps their mouth taped shut for nigh-on an hour. Seen what happened over the course of that hour. And even seen the consequences of the event.

This is the last post in this series setting out our process, so you can think about how to run such an activity, and push the boundaries even further than we did.

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In this entry I’m just going to focus on all the stuff which remained below the waterline – songs which didn’t make it to the final session, videos which inspired us but whose inspiration might not be very visible in the finished product. Read more

Celebrate All Monsters! Emmet O’Cuana, Carol Borden, Frank Collins

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Parkes, and life is grand, so I thought it might be a good day to share three great writers with you. These are all pop-culture pundits whose essays make excellent weekend reading.

Emmet O’Cuana – Challenger of the Unknown

From "The Suburbs" by Emmet O'Cuana, Sean Rinehart, and Tim Switalski, in Outre 3: Xenophobia
“The Suburbs” by O’Cuana, Rinehart, and Switalski

Emmet is a Melbourne-based comics writer, critic, and occasional radio host who has interviewed me on a couple of occasions. Each time he forced me to question my opinions and raise my thinking to a new level. The first time our chat ranged from Star Crash to Kierkegaard; the second he asked smart and challenging questions about the live-action zombie games I’d been running in Australia and New Zealand.

My favourite pieces by Emmet are still forthcoming – he wrote an insightful chapter on comics creator Grant Morrison in Darragh Greene and Kate Roddy’s Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance, plus a great essay for the comics site Sequart which made me re-evaluate James Robinson’s Starman, a comic which I love and thought I knew everything about. Watch out for them next year.

In the meantime, you can read Emmet’s work and find links to all he’s published and recorded over at his own site.

Carol Borden – Nothing Ape Is Strange To Her 

Planet of the Apes image from Monstrous Industry

Carol has featured on my site a few times before. She quietly produces meticulous, poetic criticism, taking apart icons from the past and present to examine what it means to be human. I’ve previously raved about her writing on Mario Bava’s Danger:Diabolik (“If we had a lesbian cinema that took Danger: Diabolik as its starting point, I, for one, would be much happier”) and on Superman as a positive burlesque of masculinity:

I’ve come to see Superman’s greatest powers as not his strength or heat vision, but his restraint and his theatricality both in restraining that power while pretending to fight as hard as he can and in passing as Clark Kent. As I see him now, Superman is always performing one way or another.

Carol is an editor at The Cultural Gutter, a website devoted to “disreputable art in all its forms”. In pulp fiction, old movies, cartoons, and comic-books, she excavates nuances of gender, identity, and cultural power. She compares Adventure Time’s hapless Lemongrab with Frankenstein’s monster; to discuss Planet of the Apes, she paraphrases the Roman playwright Terence: “I am Ape. Nothing Ape is strange to me.” Her latest piece in this vein looks at Dracula and even finds something new to say about the near-exhausted topic of vampires…

Frank Collins – May Not Be Used Where There Is Life

Sapphire and Steel - from Frank Collin's MovieMail column

Frank writes on classic television for British site MovieMail, and at his own site Cathode Ray Tube. I’ve long had a fondness for old television shows, but through Frank’s chronicle of twentieth century telly I discovered obscure gems like the fourth-wall-breaking Strange World of Gurney Slade.

Frank’s current MovieMail series tracing the history of British TV sci-fi showcases his critical strengths: erudition, insight, and elegance. Frank can capture the essence and wider resonance of a TV show in a single descriptive paragraph, as he does here for the wildly different Red DwarfSpace:1999, and Sapphire and Steel:

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That’s all for today: three clever souls thinking out loud about the stories we tell ourselves on the page and screen. Go check them out, if you’re looking for a Sunday read. And have a great weekend!

Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson – Transformers Podcast

Something different here at my website today. A podcast instead of a blog post. A podcast discussing that most profound of subjects… TRANSFORMERS!

What can giant fighting robots teach us about stories? What can they teach us about love? Are glorified toy commercials of interest to anyone other than kids, scholars, and nostalgics?

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Today’s discussion takes us from 1984 and the origins of the Transformers brand through cartoons, toys, and movies to the latest comics published by IDW. Daisy and Neill also discuss the mythic resonance of children’s television, the medium of comics, and the way pop culture shapes and is shaped by our own relationships with others. It runs for just under 30 minutes and you can find it below.

Daisy’s currently researching her doctorate in literary tourism and children’s literature at the University of York. She’s @chaletfan on Twitter, and you can also find her at Did You Ever Stop to Think.

Neill’s new book How To Make Awesome Comics is available now – you can find him on twitter as @neillcameron, and also at his own website, neillcameron.com.