Goin’ Back to Martini Ranch
Last week I surprised myself by invoking the name Martini Ranch. I hadn’t spoken those two words together in years, much less considered what they used to represent. You see, Martini Ranch is a dance-pop group composed of singer/guitarist Andrew Todd Rosenthal and vocalist Bill Paxton. Yes, that Bill Paxton — the actor who appears in “Twister,” “A Simple Plan,” “Titanic,” “Near Dark,” “Big Love” and dozens of other films and television series. The band’s discography is short and sweet: They recorded one minor club hit, “How Can the Laboring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?”, in 1986, and one album, “Holy Cow,” in 1988.
This may sound like an elaborate fiction, but I promise you that Martini Ranch really happened. I have proof: I just found “Holy Cow” in my CD collection, sandwiched between country music guitarist Joe Maphis and British trip-hop group Massive Attack, and I’m listening to it even now. (I had to scan the cover art myself; iTunes didn’t have it.) What I’m hearing isn’t a goof; it’s a considered and ambitious set of dance-pop songs, closer in spirit to collaborative projects like Gorillaz than to actor-driven vanity projects like the Bacon Brothers. Every song, every note has some aspiration backing it up. These guys wanted to make a record that someone like me could dig up some 22 years after it was buried, put on the stereo and say: “Wow, it’s not as horribly dated as I thought it would be. Still pretty dated, though.”
The Gorillaz comparison is an apt one. Like that Damon Albarn/Jamie Hewlett-led supergroup, Martini Ranch managed to assemble a raft of collaborators that’s as impressive as it is bewildering. Cindi Wilson of the B-52s sings on several tracks; Academy Award-nominated film music composer Mark Isham (“Crash,” “Reversal of Fortune”) plays trumpet and flugelhorn; actor Judge Reinhold whistles on the band’s second single “Reach.” Devo’s Bob Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh lent spiritual support, backing vocals and keyboards. And the band’s videos were directed by Rocky Schenck, who directed Barnes & Barnes’ deathless “Fish Heads” clip and would go on to become one of the most prolific music video directors in the business, and by one James Cameron, whose later achievements are now being taught in film schools.
As I said earlier, the album isn’t as dated as many similar albums of the era. The freshest tracks on “Holy Cow” are the ones that most clearly reveal Devo’s influence. I’d dare to call the Bob Casale-produced “How Can The Laboring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” one of the great unsung Devo tracks — it’s loaded with the pioneering New Wave band’s signature keyboard sounds, has a Devo-esque melody and chorus (written by Rosenthal), and it bears a title that wouldn’t have looked out of place on “New Traditionalists.” And like the best of Devo’s tracks, the damn thing sticks in your head for days.
The music video for “Labouring Man…?”, directed by Schenck, is something else again. It’s a genuinely heartfelt homage to German Expressionism that features blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by Michael Biehn and Rick Rossovich, as well as the only documented appearance of Anthony Michael Hall in a monocle.
Having re-discovered it, I think I could easily watch this clip a hundred times. It seems the most complete example of what Paxton and Rosenthal were trying to do — making art from their shared enthusiasms, with the help of mutual friends.
I don’t like the band’s second video, the James Cameron-directed “Reach,” quite as much as I like “Labouring Man…?”, but I can’t deny that it’s got the same giddy spirit. There’s a raft of cameos in this one, including Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Jenette Goldstein, Judge Reinhold, Adrian Pasdar and even Cameron’s wife at that time, “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow. It’s not the most inventive video of its era — Cameron indulges in music-video cliches that were tired even then, and like nearly every film he’s made, the clip for “Reach” is minutes too long — but everyone in the video looks like they’re having a great time, which was probably the point of Martini Ranch in the first place. Besides, how many other funky, cyberpunk westerns came out in 1988? Less than five, maybe?
I can’t help but wonder what kind of videos the other tracks on “Holy Cow” might have spawned. “Fat-Burning Formula,” a vamp on the weight-loss fads of the time, might have made for the most demented workout video ever. The wistful (in context) “World Without Walls” could have had an atmospheric video set in Marfa. And the sample-happy “Hot Dog,” which I think was actually prepped as a single (I seem to recall hearing a club remix), seems tailor-made for animation.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Martini Ranch is that it’s not dead. When I began this piece I assumed that the band was defunct; after all, the band’s last release was two decades ago, and Bill Paxton is busy these days. But according to the band’s Wikipedia entry, Rosenthal and Paxton are currently writing a musical that is “a hybrid of many styles and influences, including Weather Report and Frank Zappa”; it’s due at the end of the year. It sounds like just the sort of thing that a couple of culture-jamming cowpokes would come up with. I wonder who they’ll rope in to help.