Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Slurpees and Murder Record Club: Someone Please Help Me Figure Out This 1984 Commemorative Pope-Themed Cassette

The title says it all, really, but -- hello and welcome back to the Slurpees and Murder Record Club!

Remember how the last installment of SMRC had at least given us something, anything, to work with in determining its origins? Well, PREPARE YOURSELVES:

MANITOBA 1984: PAPAL VISIT — BIRDS HILL PARK, 1984 (undated, cassette)
[ traditionally, whenever I find any online information relevant to the day's album link, I put it into this space right here | and today, I, uh... I got nothing ]

What is this. What is this? What is even this.

I rescued this cassette from a Value Village a couple of weeks ago, and I had no idea what would be on it, and it turns out that even the clues on the label don't even help out at all.

Now, I do tend to keep a reasonable distance from religion -- easier for everyone that way, I've found -- but I think it's safe to suggest that Pope John Paul II was everybody's favourite Pope. Survey a hundred people on the street, see how many people don't say John Paul II.

(You just know, too, that there'll be a handful of guys who make the exact same Star Wars joke about the current Pope. Old internet memes never die, they just take off every zig.)

This is true: I once wrote a two-part, 4600-word (!) article about the Marvel comic based on the life of Pope John Paul II. Which I own. Framed. (I'd rescued the comic from the clearance ashes of Pristine Comics, paying an entire two dollars for th--you don't care? Mm. Well, another time, then.) So rest assured that I'm not approaching this with the intention of belittling the Pope or anything, which I suppose is just as well, because he... doesn't actually appear anywhere on this album besides the cover art.

(In retrospect, this also makes it funnier that the art on the cover is just him shrugging. "Ehh. What'd'ya want? I don't know what to tell you.")

So we've established what it's not: it is not a recording of the Pope during his Manitoba Papal Visit to Birds Hill Park on September 16, 1984. But... what is it? Is it the music prepared for the ceremony? Music prepared in advance of the ceremony? Music committed to cassette tape after being recorded at the ceremony?

dude i have no idea

There may -- or, there may not -- be a clue in this CBC Digital Archives video, set right here in sleepy ol' Winnipeg, which details the multi-pronged rush to cash in on the then-oncoming Papal visit. (Moychandisin'!)

I wish I could embed that video; hell, I wish I could frame that video. The zeal to snap up the tackiest, wackiest event-branded kitsch is a long and lingering Winnipeggian character note; having talked about the '99 Pan Am Games in this space before, you just know that there are folks around town who've also hung onto their Pope stuff to this day -- still occasionally reaching into the closet on cold mornings and throwing on their Pope jacket, or "that perennial Prairie favourite, the hat". (Seriously, that video. That video.)

The clip doesn't specifically mention any records or cassettes for sale, but the logo on this cassette does match the logo on a lot of the products shown, and if you watch at about the 0:21 mark a guy is squinting at what... might be cassettes? (1984 was not a banner year for video quality.) But the video also notes the potential presence of bootlegs, counterfeits and other unofficial what-have-yous, so we do have to remain open to the possibility that this is one such creature.

(Also: in the closing stretch of that video, with the three concluding jokes, is it just me or did she squander the best of the three as the opening gag? I'm not alone on this, right? SOMEONE BACK ME UP HERE)

So, although we can't prove it for certain one way or the other, it seems reasonable to suppose that this cassette was indeed released ahead of the Papal Visit as part of the collective cash-in on the occasion. But what... what is it? What is actually on this cassette?

You most likely have already noted, much to my cataloguing dismay, that the cassette label and packaging share a complete and total absence of the format's usual identification info. There's no statement of authorship anywhere, no indication of the recording place or time, not even any copyright info (!); were it not for the name and date of the event it commemorates, this cassette would be an absolute uncrackable mystery.

After much rooting and digging, I did find as close to a lead as I think we're going to get -- although, and I feel the need to stress this again for the sake of balance, there is as much chance of this being incorrect as there is of it being correct. But the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada has a record for one Peter Allen, including the following passage (bolded emphasis is mine):

"Peter Allen toured extensively playing keyboards in show and rock bands until 1980, when he became organist at St. Mary's Cathedral, Winnipeg. He was organist and composer for the papal mass in Winnipeg in 1984 and was in-house composer and producer for Century 21 Studios in Winnipeg 1985-6."

Now, that still isn't conclusive by any means, of course, but there is at least a possibility that this Peter Allen fellow was the man behind the music that you have in your metaphorical hands right now. And there is at least a possibility that the cassette was cut at Century 21 Studios -- though I'm even less confident on that supposition than the previous one, because my experience with other items would suggest that Century 21 made sure their name was on everything.

Or the whole thing could be a random bootleg. I DON'T KNOW. (You can see how the element of mystery around this item remains hard to shake.)

So let's take this time now to talk about the actual content on the cassette, because my word. We need to talk about the content on this cassette, you guys.

The majority of the tracks on this album do sound like legit Pope-heralding music; the arrangement, amplification, ambient effects (note the guy coughing halfway through 2-6 and right at the end of 2-9) and leftover artifacts all suggest that the album was, for the most part, recorded live in performance somewhere with a church organ and a good-sized choir.

This is also part of why I've put the album up now; the Christmas season is upon us, and if you're anything like me, you have a very limited supply of patience for the generally-accepted Christmas-music canon.

As I'd said earlier, I'm not much for religion, and I'm not often much for (Western) religious music -- but old-time Christ-y choirs are infinitely more palatable to me at this time of year than listening to "Jingle Bell Rock", ever again, ever ever ever again. So a fair number of the recordings on here -- I particularly recommend tracks 1-2, 1-5, 2-9, and especially 2-2 -- make for entirely worthwhile Christmastime playlist additions.

I'll also admit a soft spot for 2-3 and 2-4 -- very short tracks both -- entirely because both of them almost but not quite sound like the fadeout at the end of Peter Gabriel's "Biko". (Well, they do. And it's a perfectly good reason.)

And you'll want to listen to track 1-4, "Ukrainian Penitential Rite", at least once in your life, just to say that you did, because -- and I feel sort of bad saying this, but you're going to think it too -- it totally sounds like the lead vocalist was just winging it and trying to make it up on the spot.

Now -- I'd mentioned that most of the tracks are chorus arrangements, most likely performed live and recorded in concert. The ones that aren't...

Well. Here's what I think might have happened, and you are welcome to agree or disagree with my theory as you choose. But I think that someone -- possibly our Peter Allen fellow, possibly not, but whoever was putting the album together -- might have figured that a lot of people were going to pick up this album, what with the Pope coming to town and all. And if a lot of people were going to hear it -- why, perhaps even the Pope himself would have a listen! -- then, well, he also just happened to have a few of his own kickin' Contemporary-Christian tunes handy on a nearby demo tape of his...

I know that this theory sounds implausible, but -- on the first full listen-through as a whole -- so does the entire album. I'm not kidding, it opens -- it opens! -- with a studio recording of one of the cheesiest, synthiest, Easy-Jesus-Listenin'-est songs that you or I have ever heard in our lives. I mean, I'm trying to be charitable, I know it's Chris-a-mas time, I know they meant well, but... well, you're hearing this, right? Right about now you've reached the last minute of the song, when a forever-expanding dramatic crescendo is gamely attempted and dramatically botched? And then it ends, and the entire rest of side one is a live traditional choir, never acknowledging the first track again?

So, okay, maybe it's just that one weird outlier at the very beginning of the album, and maybe the rest of the cassette will--NOPE HERE COMES SIDE TWO

good lord side two

Yes, side two starts back in the studio -- with the absolute chunkiest synth-bass notes possible -- and that first track peaks, right then and there, twelve seconds in. Everything after it in the first song, oh, goodness, no. But those first twelve seconds on loop could very convincingly serve as the background menu music of a cyberpunk adventure, or the credits of a French '80s cartoon, or the highway-conditions graphic on an old weather channel. So... there's that?

I will say this for track 2-1: it is not track 2-7. Track 2-7 is between choral performances, just casually throwing the flow of the album straight out the window, and it sounds like a synth-Christian karaoke lounge-jazz King Arthur's Court, and I just, I can't. I can't! I can't even.

But stick with it, dear friends, because these are necessary reference points; only after all of these -- only after you have personally experienced 1-1, 2-1 and 2-7 -- will you be ready for the big finale, track 2-10, "Believe in God".

Well, no, okay, "ready" might not be the right word. But you'll be as prepared for it as you're going to get.

I mean, you won't be able to handle it at first, let's just get that out of the way right now; you'll wonder what on earth is going on when it starts, and you'll wonder what on earth just happened in your ears when the strangely compelling first chorus turnaround drops, and you'll wonder what on earth the whole thing is turning into as you listen to it unfold around you. You won't be able to decide if what you are hearing is amazing, or terrible, or incomprehensibly both. But it will sound majestic -- peculiarly catchy, even! -- in comparison to its forebearers, as though the studio implosions that came before it were all necessary to build the gravitational pull bonding this track together in something approaching cohesion.

Now, having said all that: you are absolutely not ready for the eventual third vocalist on this song. You will never be ready for the third vocalist. You will not know that there is a third vocalist until it is too late, and your mind will not be able to comprehend why the third vocalist is there or what the third vocalist is doing, and then you are going to end the album every bit as discombobulated as you were when you first heard it begin.

It is... quite the journey, really, this album. I'm sure you must be glad that you participated in it! Now let us extract the salvageable choral pieces, and let us never speak of this again.

The Slurpees and Murder Record Club: if nothing else, it's full of surprises!


cherenkov said...

Boy, I paid a lot more for that comic than you did.

Anonymous said...

I admire its purity.

Anonymous said...

I often see this one in the bargain bins. I applaud your stamina for actually sitting through the whole album.

The Analyst said...

Have you discontinued the Manitoba Link Weeks?

James Hope Howard said...

For now, at least, I have indeed; I hit fifty-two of them, and that seemed like plenty, but then I also left the door pretty wide open for a second 'season' if need be. So we'll see!