Blog: Geoff on the Musical Choices in Having Fun Up There

The following was written by Geoff Tarulli as an explanation to the cast and crew of what the musical backgrounds of the characters in the film would be.

It all must start off with the Ramones.

“Please Kill Me” is probably the best book ever written about the American punk scene in the 70s. The book draws some real lines between the very arty side of the scene (see Velvet Underground) and the other side which many “New York Artists” saw as populated by total cretins: The Ramones and another favorite band of mine, The Dictators (a band fronted by once actual amateur wrestler Handsome Dick Manitoba.) Both bands have humor about them, adolescent angst, a steady diet of bad movies, fast food, etc.

These are the kinds of bands, when it comes to punk, that Mark would be into. The Velvet Underground are all fine and good, but the great sounding riffs and fun of bands like The Ramones and The Dictators would be the basis for some of his music vocabulary. Contrary to popular belief, The Ramones didn’t start off wanting to help define punk music. They actually really wanted to be The Geoff Tarulli on the set of Having Fun Up There. Photo by Bonica Ayala. 299 Appendix 1 Bay City Rollers and make a ton of money. But they were untalented with their instruments in the conventional way. What they had to do was boil down rock and roll to its most simple parts and play it. 4 chords and a lot of energy. As Tommy Ramone once famously said, “Remove the unnecessary, focus on the substance.” It was a band that embraced not just its shortcomings, but celebrated their own “idiocy,” often happily singing about things like sniffing glue, being a Nazi (they weren’t, but loved upsetting the status quo), beating people up with baseball bats and having no brains (“Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em/I ain’t got no cerebellum.”) In short, for Mark’s character, he loves the honesty, wallowing in your own faults and the honesty of the simple 4 chord song that is also catchy. The Dictators are a lot more together in terms of musicianship, but they still have great riffs and tongues firmly in cheek at times.

The fact that Mark’s a bass player means he’s actually paying attention to a bunch of things in songs that a lot of lay people don’t. The bass is considered a part of the rhythm section. Depending on the kind of music, that can mean drums and bass, drums/bass/piano, drums, bass, piano and guitar, etc. Our good friends at Wikipedia say it well: “A rhythm section is a group of musicians within an ensemble who provide the underlying rhythm and pulse of the accompaniment, providing a rhythmic reference for the rest of the band. Many of the rhythm section instruments, such as keyboards and guitars, play the chord progression upon which the song is based.” This was a pretty valued thing in both blues and jazz but for a lot of people ended up being the role for the idiots in the rock band where the drums and bass are largely considered the rhythm section. If we wanted to cleve the modern rock band into two stereotypes, you have the drummer and the bassist who are largely thought to be the drooling subnormals and drunks while the singers and guitarists are largely thought to be the egomaniacs who write the songs. Again, total stereotypes.

A player like Mark is good because he doesn’t do the typical modern day rock and roll bassist thing of just following the guitarist’s chord progression and following the drummer for the beat. With that in mind, Mark would love pop music of the 60s and 70s, where the bass was allowed to not only revel in its solidness as a rhythm 300 Appendix 1 instrument, but played a lot of the melody too. In “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5, listen for the bass. It’s crushingly awesome in the rhythm category, but is also a lot more melody driven than the guitar. Lyric-wise, it’s just a heartfelt love song, no irony, just (slightly exaggerated) sincerity about being sad and that would appeal to Mark as well. Let’s say nothing of how disgustingly talented Michael Jackson is as a vocalist. Clean notes, character and just total control of his voice.

So while we’re on the subject of pop music, let’s talk about the Beach Boys. “Snow Day,” the final song in this film, has a very Beach Boys opening. The Beach Boys are important not just because they wrote very catchy songs about fast cars and women, but for what they did in the studio. The record Pet Sounds is widely regarded by anyone who is an engineer as a very, very important record. I’ll let you Google it and read up on it (of course, some people think it’s also totally overrated) but my point is that the Beach Boys represent something that is both great pop music and intelligent use of recording techniques.

Next: Country. Old country music is amazing. Forget about most things past the 70s in the genre. Think of both early country and rock and roll as the blues for white people. Country themes are very similar to blues: heartbreak, poverty, contempt for authority, and a bit of fatalism thrown in. So we have themes here that Mark would dig, but there’s also something great about the sounds. The steel guitar has a sound all of its own, for instance.

Two early people Mark would dig would be Earnest Tubb and of course Hank Williams. Listen to the heartbreak of Earnest in “Thanks a Lot” (and couldn’t this song be about Mark and Carla?) and the sadness and awesome, totally creepy production of Hank in “Ramblin’ Man” (as well as the super sad fiddle in the background).

We have a scene in which a young hipster thinks Mark is wearing a Thin Lizzy shirt as a joke. Thin Lizzy is seen by some as a big stadium rock band. Their biggest hit was “The Boys are Back in Town” and is played endlessly on classic rock radio stations to the point where some people just assume that that particular song encapsulates 301 Appendix 1 everything they ever did. There are a lot of bands who suffer from this kind of judgement. DEVO, which is one of my favorite bands ever, is known by most as a one hit wonder for their 80s song “Whip It.” Blue Oyster Cult is known for “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and a Saturday Night Live cowbell joke, despite the fact that their first 2 or 3 albums are amazing.

Thin Lizzy had an amazing singer/bass player named Phil Lynott. The guy was super tasteful, ridiculously influenced by Jimi Hendrix and knew how to write a song. And, hey – bassist/lead singer? Certainly more rare than the guitarist/lead singer.

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