Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tommy James and the Shondells -- "Crystal Blue Persuasion" (1969)

Ain't it beautiful?
Crystal blue persuasion

According to Time magazine, Breaking Bad is the most binge-watched TV show ever.

I haven't binge-watched Breaking Bad.  ("Binge-watching" is defined as watching three or more episodes of a TV show in one day.)  But I've been watching three or four episodes a week on DVD for the last several months.  The DVDs with the show's final episodes is on reserve for me at my local public library, so the end is in sight for me.

The episode I watched today -- #54 of 62 -- was titled "Gliding Over All."  That title was taken from a short poem in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a book that turns out to have great significance in the series:

Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul — not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.

"Gliding Over All" contained two tour de force sequences, both of which were accompanied by unrelated but oddly suitable songs.

The first sequence depicted the coordinated murder of ten prison inmates who were housed in three different New Mexico prisons.  The virtually simultaneous killings were performed to make sure that none of the prisoners could rat out the show's anti-hero, high-school-chemistry-dealer-turned-meth-supercook Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston).

The soundtrack for that two-minute, real-time scene is Nat King Cole's "Pick Yourself Up":

The second montage, which is about three and a half minutes long, is a series of shots depicting the various aspects of the methamphetamine business -- cooking it, transporting it, and handling the massive quantity of currency that is generated.  It's accompanied by "Crystal Blue Persuasion," which was a #2 hit for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1969.  (It's a happy coincidence that the extraordinarily high-quality meth that Walter White cooks is a beautiful blue color.)

The meth montage features a number of almost seamless transitions.  (The meth montage doesn't seem to be available on YouTube any more, so you'll need to get the DVD with "Gliding Over All" or access the episode online.)

For example, watch at 2:00 of the montage when the camera moves in during a shot of tequila being poured into a glass until all you see is the stream of liquid.  When the camera pulls back, the liquid that is being poured is revealed to be  methylamine, the precursor chemical that is key to the production of crystal meth.

And watch just before the 3:00 mark, when Walt's wife Skyler -- who is wearing a blue blouse -- reaches for a red coffee mug.  As her hand is grasping the mug, there's a cut to a close-up of the hand taking hold of the mug's handle.  But as the camera pulls back, we see that the hand belongs to a different female character, who is also wearing a blue blouse.

The wages of sin
The authors of Wanna Cook: The Complete Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad describe the sequence as "a love song to the tremendous cinematography used from the very beginning of the series, and is beautifully done."

I couldn't agree more.  It's impressive that the director of this episode was able to accomplish such a visually stunning sequence on a cable-TV budget.  I've seen plenty of big-budget Hollywood movies that did a lot less with a lot more.

The Simpsons paid tribute to the meth montage last year:

A lot of people assumed that "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was a drug song.  Some believed it was about crystal meth, while others thought the lyrics were referring the blue-colored LSD tablets that were in circulation back in 1969.

But Tommy James has been adamant that nothing could be further from the truth.  James told Songfacts that the song's title was derived from the Book of Revelation:

Songfacts:  Okay.  Is "Crystal Blue" a reference to the Book of Revelation?

Tommy James: Yes, it is.  It's out of the Bible, right. 

Tommy James
Songfacts:  Is that phrase in there somewhere?  Or did you just string words together?

Tommy:  Well, the imagery was right out of . . . the Book of Revelation . . . . The imagery was right there. "Crystal blue persuasion," although those words aren't used together, it was kind of what the image meant to me.

Songfacts: And when you sing about "it's a new vibration," are you talking about becoming Christian? 

Tommy:  Yes, indeed.  And, of course, everybody thinks if they don't understand what you're talking about it must be about drugs.  But it wasn't.  We were going through a real interesting time back then, and a very wonderful time.  Everybody in the band, by the way, became Christian.  And we're very proud of it.  And "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was our way of saying that in a kind of pop record way.

I wasn't a big fan of "Crystal Blue Persuasion" until I watched the Breaking Bad "meth montage."  It's a very unique song, and the music does have a religious quality -- it's exhilarating, but soothing and peaceful at the same time.

Here's "Crystal Blue Persuasion":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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