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Herschell Gordon Lewis - The Eye Popping Sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis

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Artist: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Album: The Eye Popping Sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis

Label: Birdman

Review date: Mar. 28, 2002

Herschell Gordon Lewis is well-known for two reasons - as a marketing consultant with dozens of best-selling books to his credit, and also as the creator of the “gore” film, a genre he invented in 1963 with Blood Feast. Not that blood and mutilation were absent from horror before Lewis, they just never had been the entire justification for a film’s existence as it was for his work, nor had they ever been portrayed as explicitly as they were in such titles as The Wizard of Gore, The Gore Gore Girls, and The Gruesome Twosome. Not at all realistically, but certainly explicitly. With dummies, butcher castoffs, lots of red gooey liquid and a flair for sensationalism, Lewis, for better or worse, had a vital part in creating the modern horror film as we know it. Lewis’s career as an inspired songwriter is fairly obscure compared to his one as a director, although he wrote and even performed on much of the music in his films. The Eye-Popping Sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis (eye-popping in both senses) functions as both a re-appraisal of his idiosyncratic musical work and a quick primer on the spirit of exploitation filmmaking during its golden age in the sixties and early seventies, a time when mavericks such as Lewis and Russ Meyer (who along with Lewis is one of John Water’s favorite director) could turn a profit on their strange, unconventional films relying only on minimal resources bordering on insufficient, low budgets and a healthy dose of sex and/or violence.

Most of the tracks on the CD are from the scores to Lewis’s first two gore films: the seminal Blood Feast, for which Lewis is currently directing a sequel (his first film in 30 years!), and 2,000 Maniacs. The Blood Feast score is notable because, just like much of Ennio Morricone’s work and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, it’s superior to the film in which it appears. Blood Feast, although a landmark in horror, has not aged that well - it barely has a plot, its acting is epic in its awfulness, and for the most part it lacks the mordant humor of Lewis’s later films, although when critiquing a movie whose “best” scene is of a busty blonde’s tongue being ripped out, such objections are rendered ultimately irrelevant. Lewis writes in the liner notes (which are extremely informative as to how he made both music and films) that he set out to make strange music to fit a strange movie, and he succeeded gloriously; the score to Blood Feast sounds like nothing else; combining monotonous kettle drums (played by Lewis) whose thump signals DOOM!, an organ that sounds like some mean-spirited child hijacked the keyboard at his grandma’s funeral, and an inebriated violin, it sure is unique. It’s reminiscent of music one might hear at a really good Halloween spookshow – which is an apt comparison, since Lewis’s films are the cinematic equivalent of sitting trick-or-treaters in the dark and giving them the dead witch’s brains to pass around.

The instrumental score for 2,000 Maniacs is dominated by the same creepy organ, this time embellished with acoustic guitar and woodwinds; it’s very similar to Blood Feast, although a bit more varied, with some faster-paced numbers and a few pastoral interludes. Lewis thinks 2,000 Maniacs is his best film, and he’s probably right; it’s a vast improvement over Blood Feast, and benefits from his largest budget, an inspired plot (Yankee tourists are lured to a Southern town’s “centennial celebration” – a town whose crazed inhabitants are actually ghosts seeking vengeance for their death a hundred years before at the hands of Union troops), creative gore set pieces, and some of most enjoyably bad cornpone acting outside of Hee Haw. And bluegrass! Lewis hired capable country musicians to appear in the film and perform folk standards such as “Dixie”, in addition to its theme song. With an infectious paean to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall and the rebirth of the Confederacy with a catchy chorus – “Yee-Haw! Oh, the South’s going to rise again!” – it is arguably Lewis’s most triumphant musical moment – not only did he write it, but he also sings the lead vocal – and not that badly either.

What is most surprising, on listening to these two scores outside of the context of their films, is how melancholy they often sound, an aspect easily missed when they accompany shots of limbs being cut off. Pathos isn’t a note often hit in Lewis’s films (it exists uneasily alongside ghoulish glee), so it’s unusual how plaintive the guitar accompaniment in 2,000 Maniacs often is, or how the violin on Blood Feast reverberates with regretful sorrow, an undercurrent of low-key anguish that provides a stark contrast to the grotesqueries on-screen – an inexplicable tragicomic delirium, or as best described in the title of one Lewis film, it’s Something Weird.

Rounding out the CD is a hodgepodge of title themes (gore & non-gore), a few strange doomy psychedelic rock numbers from Blast Off Girls, and couple of promotional spots typical of the halcyon days of exploitation, when both threadbare junk and actually decent films were hyped with the same degree of embarrassing fervor (“Both of these films are in color – which even makes the horror more horrible!”). Of the themes, “Living Venus” is a banal and fairly cheesy pre-gore ballad, but the others serve as good examples of Lewis’s misanthropic wit. A pair are taken from his sexploitation movies, which Lewis would bash out when not flinging viscera at his lens: Suburban Roulette and The Girl, the Body and the Pill (Originally titled The Girl, the Boy and the Pill, but in a screw-up similar to the one that forever saddled Ray Dennis Steckler's Rat Pfink A Boo with its notorious quasi-title, the posters for the film were produced with a misprint, and it was less expensive simply to retitle the movie than to make another batch – which is a good indication of the kind of money that went into making a Lewis film). “Suburban Roulette”, about the original gang banger lifestyle (perhaps the most pressing social issue of its time, if one were to judge only by the shear glut of sleazy B-movies on the topic that the era produced) is a degenerate low-budget simulation of Rat Pack showbiz smarminess, delivered by a malevolent Sammy Davis Jr. clone. It has lyrics impossible not to quote. To wit the opening lines:

- What’s our favorite evening game?

- Night Baseball?

- Oh Baby, you’re all wet!

Let's swap partners is the name -

Suburban Roulette!

Unfortunately, nothing else in the song after the intro has quite the same inspired mix of goofiness and skin-crawling lechery, although “The other guy’s wife is always greener” comes close. “The Pill” – well, there’s this guy singing, and he’s really, really happy about the birth control pill - downright giddy - and he would be very pleased if you’d take that little round pill from its little round case – it would be the world to him - and don’t miss one pill, just one little pill, and then to demonstrate why, someone does a horrific imitation of a crying baby, then a chorus of men’s voices sneak in a quick hymn of praise to scientists who invented the pill, and please honey, take that little round pill, and then it a few seconds short of the two minute mark – two brief minutes, but just enough to change the way you think about contraception forever, or to make you never want to think about it ever again.

Back to gore with the theme song to Lewis’s motorcycle opus She-Devils on Wheels: “Get Off the Road”. With its uninflected female vocals evoking the reckless anomie of the outlaw set (which along with swinging was such a hot-button issue in the 60’s that hundreds of low budget filmmakers responded by making enough biker movies to last our civilization the next several centuries) and blasts of revving engines and squealing tires frequently drowning out the music, this track could be mistaken for a lo-fi recording of the Donnas rehearsing in an auto junkyard. It also contains the classic refrain: “Bug off/ or you’ll find/that you have/blown your mind” - there’s a good lesson in there for songwriters against padding out a lyric for the sake of rhyme. The band performing the song belongs to Lewis’s teenage son, but who the hell are the girls belting out this thing? Actresses in the film? The boy’s high school honeys? The liner notes don’t say, but whoever they are, they sure are not singers (just as the stars of She-Devils were not actresses, but actual bikers – so I guess it all fits). This fantastic piece of mind-rot may be familiar to some listeners through a version by the Cramps, whose Lux Interior had a hand in designing the album cover for The Eye-Popping Sounds. The Cramps are not the only band to be inspired by Lewis’s work. 10,000 Maniacs named themselves after 2,000 Maniacs, but upped the number of madmen to sound more impressive. And I’m not even making that up.

“I’m no Paul McCartney, posing and posturing as though I’m a serious composer” writes the ever-wry Lewis as an introduction to The Eye-Popping Sounds (and neither is Paul a serious gore innovator, never having built on the promise of the original cover to Yesterday and Today). No one will mistake this CD as being the work of a major musician, yet it is still far better than music made for the sole intention of saving money (something Lewis readily admits) really needs to be. Maybe Blood Feast 2 will find Lewis behind the kettle drums again.

By Mark Hamilton

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"The South's Gonna Rise Again" b/w "Moonshine Mountain"

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