Respecting the Sabbath


© Rolling Stone


The third commandment tells us to keep the Sabbath holy.  Well, I believe in respecting the Sabbath but I’m not talking about the seventh day of the week.  I’m talking about Black Sabbath, the 49-year-old heavy metal band who played their last-ever gig two nights ago.


Fittingly, Black Sabbath’s farewell performance took place at the Genting Arena in Birmingham, the city where it all started for them.  Guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and incomparable – many would say incorrigible – singer Ozzy Osbourne grew up in Aston, one of Birmingham’s working-class suburbs.  Prior to forming the band, they did a variety of unglamorous jobs there, including delivering coal, labouring on building sites and working in a sheet metal factory, car plant and abattoir.  Iommi ended his time in the steelworks with an accident that sheared off two of his fingertips and nearly ruined his budding career as a guitarist.  Osbourne, meanwhile, took up housebreaking and got jailed for six weeks.


Butler told the BBC recently, “It wasn’t a great place to be at that time.  We were listening to songs about San Francisco.  The hippies were all peace and love and everything.  There we were in Aston.  Ozzy was in prison from burgling houses, me and Tony were always in fights with somebody… we had quite a rough upbringing.  Our music reflected the way we felt.”


If they felt miserable in Aston and channelled that misery into their music, I can only say the misery was worth it.  The first, eponymously-named song on their first, eponymously-named album in 1970 sets the tone for Black Sabbath’s career of evil.  It’s a gloriously dark and doom-laden affair, opening with rumbles of thunder, the sluicing of rain and the clanging of altar bells.  These give way to a funereal chug of heavy guitars and the eerie high-pitched squalls of Ozzy’s voice (“What is this that stands before me?  / Figure in black which points at me-e-ee?”), which later speed up for a tumultuous but still ominous climax.  I imagine that if any of those peace-and-love hippies whom Butler referred to had gone to a Sabbath gig in 1970 (having ingested some psychedelic substances beforehand) and the gig had opened with this number, they’d have probably fled from the venue screaming in terror with their hands clamped over their ears.


© Vertigo


Iommi and Butler were horror-movie fans and their music had a horror-movie vibe.  Even the band’s name came from a scary film, 1963’s Black Sabbath, directed by the legendary Mario Bava and starring the legendary Boris Karloff.  Also horror-movie-esque is the cover of the first Sabbath album, showing a black-robed lady looming spectrally in the middle of a spooky autumnal landscape – the building in the background is actually Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire.  I find it cool that nobody knows the identity of the woman, presumably a briefly-hired model or actress, who posed for the picture.  Iommi has claimed that, later, she turned up at one Sabbath concert and said hello to the band.  But I like to think she’d never been at the original photo-shoot at all.  Rather, she was a ghost that haunted the watermill – and when the cover-photo was developed, her wraithlike image had somehow imposed itself on it.


Black Sabbath produced another album in 1970, Paranoid, which was choc-a-bloc with groovy tunes – the famous title track, the skull-crushing Iron Man, the nihilistic War Pigs and the sublimely dreamy and trippy Planet Caravan, which has been described as ‘the ultimate coming-down song’.  The following year’s Master of Reality gave us the jaunty but provocative After Forever (“Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope / Do you think he’s a fool?”) and the wonderfully sepulchral Children of the Grave.  Other classic songs included Supernaut, which turned up on the 1972 album Vol. 4; the exhilarating title track of 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which is perhaps my favourite Sabbath song ever; and the similarly exhilarating Symptom of the Universe on 1974’s Sabotage, which suggests (to me, anyway) Sabbath were secret forebears of punk rock.  1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 1978’s Never Say Die are less acclaimed and lack a truly killer track, but I’m still partial to them both.


© WWA Records


In 1980 we got Heaven and Hell which – shock! horror! – didn’t have Ozzy Osbourne doing vocals.  The singer had been sacked from the band due to his massive substance abuse and consequent massive unreliability.  While Ozzy maintains that he was no worse a wreck than the other three band-members were at the time, it was surely tough working with a man prone to such misfortunes as snorting a line of ants he’d mistaken for a line of cocaine or being caught by the San Antonio police urinating over the Alamo whilst dressed in a frock.  Making a Black Sabbath album without Ozzy sounds as feasible as filming The Lord of the Rings without Gandalf, but Iommi, Butler and Ward wisely recruited the late, great Ronnie James Dio as a replacement.  Dio gave Black Sabbath a new lease of life.  He made them sound different – his operatic voice a contrast to the wailing alienness of Ozzy’s – but I have no complaints about the resulting album, full of spiffing tracks like Children of the Sea, Neon Knights and Die Young.




Dio sang on the next album for Black Sabbath, 1981’s Mob Rules, and returned to sing on 1992’s Dehumanizer; but they were the only Sabbath albums for a long time that were any good.  During the 1980s and 1990s Iommi was the sole founding member who stuck with the band and a succession of jobbing musicians contributed to the records.  Singers included Ian Gillan and Glenn Hughes, two alumni of Sabbath’s more mainstream 1970s rivals Deep Purple.  Meanwhile, the band seemed to get through drummers at a rate worthy of Spinal Tap, with the ELO’s Bev Bevan, the Clash’s Terry Chimes and the ubiquitous Cozy Powell banging the skins at various times.  To be honest, the band’s output during this period – 1983’s Born Again, 1986’s Seventh Star, 1987’s The Eternal Idol, 1989’s Headless Cross, 1990’s Tyr, 1994’s Cross Purposes, 1995’s Forbidden – is pretty rubbish.


Happily, the original line-up had reconciled by the late 1990s and they’ve played together sporadically since then, at least when other work commitments (like Ozzy’s solo career), illness (Iommi was diagnosed as having lymphoma in 2012) and feuding (Bill Ward fell out with everyone else and quit in 2012) didn’t get in the way.  In 2013 they even managed to produce a new album, 13, which while not quite up to their former standards got some positive reviews and produced a decently apocalyptic single, God is Dead?  Filling in for Ward on the drums was Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine.  For Wilk, I imagine getting this job must have been a dream come true.


Well, it seems they’ve finally called it a day.   Maybe that’s just as well in Ozzy’s case, since the old boy’s 67 now and surely needs to take it easy after a lifetime of drugs, alcohol, excess and idiocy.  (At Christmas, after the news that George Michael and Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt had died within the space of 24 hours, a friend said to me worriedly, “At this rate Ozzy’s not going to make it to the Bells.”)


They deserve to enjoy their retirement for their legacy is huge.  Their weighty fingerprints are all over musical movements like grunge and hardcore punk.  And they’re clearly major influences on such metallic sub-genres as black metal, doom metal, goth metal, power metal, sludge metal, speed metal and stoner metal.  Indeed, they’re responsible for producing more metal than the Brummie steelworks where the young Tony Iommi lost his fingertips and almost lost his future in music.




Cramping their style


© Trebuchet Magazine


I’ve just finished reading Journey to the Centre of the Cramps, written by music journalist Dick Porter and dealing with the American rock band the Cramps, who blazed a sonic trail for three memorable decades from the mid-1970s to the late noughties.


The Cramps wore an awful lot of influences on their black-leather sleeves but somehow managed to meld those influences into a sound and style quite unlike anyone or anything else.  They took as inspiration classic 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, surf music, garage rock, the velocity and bad attitude of punk and the darkness and glamour (but not the pomposity) of goth.  The band’s heart and soul were guitarist Poison Ivy (Kirsty Wallace), who was responsible for their sometimes juddering, sometimes twangy, always captivating guitar sound and who wasn’t averse to posing for album-cover photos in high heels, fishnets, suspenders, shades, devil’s horns and body-hugging PVC; and her romantic and musical partner, the towering vocalist Lux Interior (Erik Purkhiser), whose sepulchral voice and ghoulish lyrics channelled a 1950s American childhood spent immersed in trashy horror, sci-fi and exploitation movies and gruesome sensationalist comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.


© The Medicine Label


Under Ivy and Lux’s supervision, the Cramps became a Frankenstein’s Monster fashioned out of pieces of Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, the Marquis de Sade and the Addams Family; but this was no lumbering misshapen monster.  This was something cadaverously elegant and it rocked.


As usual, I came late to the party.  I didn’t get into the Cramps until the late 1980s, a dozen years after they’d started, thanks to my brother giving me a crackly cassette-tape recording of their 1983 compilation album Off the Bone.  (On the other side of the cassette was the 1988 Sugarcubes album Life’s Too Good.  Wow, those were the days.)  But at least by then I’d heard of the Cramps.  Indeed, the band had been credited with inventing their own musical genre, psychobilly.  And their alleged progeny, such raucous psychobilly combos as the Meteors, Guano Batz and King Kurt, with their greased quiffs, brothel creepers, tattoos and fondness for slapping a double bass, had lately been rampaging through the sweatier, dingier music venues of 1980s Britain.


As Porter’s book notes, the Cramps were certainly responsible for the term ‘psychobilly’ – because they’d made the word up and stuck it on a promotional flyer when they were trying to get themselves noticed in New York a decade earlier.  But they maintained a polite and slightly bemused distance from the musical scene they were supposed to have spawned.  Porter quotes Poison Ivy as saying, “I think our songs have a more sensuous tempo.  I’m not sure what exactly defines psychobilly but it seems to have taken on a life of its own.  But it’s not quite what we do.”  Porter himself observes that “whereas the Cramps drew on a smorgasbord of influences that included R&B and doo-wop, the psychobilly groups tended to eschew blues-based influences and splice rockabilly to a punk template that hadn’t existed back when the Cramps got started.”


© The AV Club


Anyway, as soon as I heard Off the Bone, I was hooked.  And I snapped up their releases in subsequent years – albums like Stay Sick (1990), Look Mom No Head (1991) and Flamejob (1994), which were choc-a-bloc with irresistible songs like Bikini Girls with Machine Guns, Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon, Journey to the Centre of a Girl, All Women are Bad, I Wanna Get in your Pants, Eyeball in my Martini, Bend Over I’ll Drive, Let’s Get F***ed Up and Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs.  Even now, when I’m feeling a little down or stressed about something, I only have to listen to one of those songs, with Lux Interior singing his macabre, funny and innuendo-laden lyrics and Poison Ivy’s guitar buzzing or stuttering behind him, and after a minute I’ll feel right as rain again.


Take Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs, for instance: “I fell in love at a terrible pace…  When someone gave her a shove down a staircase…”  I mean, how can anyone not love a song called Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs?


I never saw them live, though, which is something I really regret now.


Porter’s book suffers from a problem typical of rock biographies.  It’s interesting while it describes how its subjects started life and struggled to establish themselves musically.  But then, once a certain level of success and fame has been reached, it becomes an inevitably less-interesting litany of record-deals, album releases, tours and line-up changes.  (Outside the creative nucleus of Ivy and Lux, the Cramps underwent a lot of line-up changes.  Among some 20 band-members over the years, only guitarists Bryan Gregory and Kid Congo Powers, bassists Candy Del Mar and Slim Chance and drummers Nick Knox and Harry Drumdini were around long enough to make much impression.)  Tellingly, it takes Porter about 200 pages to get to the end of the Cramps’ first decade; but then the remaining two decades of Cramps history are shoehorned into the book’s remaining fifty pages.


From The Roper Files – Word


One thing that reflects well on Porter is how he acknowledges the Cramps’ powers of musicianship.  He details the skill, attention to detail and hard graft that went into composing and recording their songs, which gives the lie to the perception of the band (popular among certain snooty British music critics) as a kitschy, campy and not-to-be-taken-seriously novelty act.  Ivy and Lux were extremely knowledgeable about their influences and extremely committed about what they did – and they put the work in.  Their finished songs might’ve made it look and sound easy, but this illusion of effortlessness was the result of high standards of talent and professionalism behind the scenes.


Inevitably, the book ends on a melancholy note, for in 2009 Lux Interior died suddenly and unexpectedly from a tear in his aortic wall.  Not only did his death deprive rock ‘n’ roll music of one of its most striking and amusing figures; but it also brought the curtain down both on his lifelong romantic and creative partnership with Poison Ivy and on the Cramps themselves.


That partnership and the band were of course one and the same thing.  As Poison Ivy remarked to the author in 2006, “That’s all the Cramps is – a folie à deux.”


© Omnibus Press


And just when you thought 2016 couldn’t get any worse…


© Columbia


I’ve just read in the news that the great Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away.  With Donald Trump newly elected to the White House, I suspect Cohen decided it was time to check out because the world had reached a point where it was even more depressing than one of his songs.


Cohen produced many tunes that were marvellous because of their very sadness.  Their melancholia was delicious.  No wonder his most recent album, released only last month, was called You Want It Darker – he knew what his audience expected of him.


I’m not a great fan of 1984’s Hallelujah (1984), perhaps his most famous song, which for me has just been covered (and X-Factored) to death.  But I love The Stranger Song, Winter Lady and Sisters of Mercy from his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), all of which featured on the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s classic western movie McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).


© Warner Bros


Indeed, the beginning of McCabe and Mrs Miller where Warren Beatty and his horses plod across a bleak, windswept mountainside to reach the muddy, back-of-beyond frontier town that’s the setting for the film’s action, to the strains of The Stranger Song, is my all-time-favourite opening sequence in a western.  Though I have to admit that starting the film with a Leonard Cohen song gives the game away somewhat.  The moment Cohen starts singing, you just know there’s going to be an unhappy ending.  Warren Beatty is going to die.


Incidentally, the other day, I was watching Taika Waititi’s amusing comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) when, suddenly and unexpectedly, Cohen started playing on the soundtrack. This was during a bleak-looking sequence where Sam Neil and Julian Dennison struggle across some wintry New Zealand mountains.  Of course, this was an affectionate nod by Waititi towards McCabe and Mrs Miller, though the song played here wasn’t The Stranger Song.  It was The Partisan, a 1969 cover Cohen did of La Complainte du Partisan, written in 1943 by Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly.


© Defender Films / Piki Films / Curious


Two other Cohen songs I’m fond of that also have a strong cinematic connection are Waiting for a Miracle and The Future, both off the 1992 album The Future.  These book-end Oliver Stone’s ferocious 1994 movie about the American media’s adulation of two mass-murderers, Natural Born Killers.  The slow, gruffly-intoned and doom-laden Waiting for a Miracle plays at the film’s opening, which sees Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis arrive in a fly-ridden, redneck-infested diner in the New Mexico desert.  The song warns you that something horrible is about to happen.  And yes, since this is an Oliver Stone movie, something horrible soon does happen.


Played at the close of Natural Born KillersThe Future is a jauntier affair, but it contains the worrying refrain, “I’ve seen the future, brother – it is murder.”  Actually, I rather hope that Cohen has arranged for that to be played at his funeral service.  Then the joke really will be on us.


© Regency Enterprises / Warner Bros


AC / Deceased


From ultimateclassicrockcom


One of the saddest things I’ve seen in recent years is the gradual but relentless demise of the heavy metal band AC/DC.


First of all, in 2014, AC/DC lost its founder member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young after memory-loss and concentration-loss caused by dementia left him unable to play.  Later that same year, the band parted company with long-time drummer Phil Rudd after he ended up in court on drugs charges and, bizarrely, an allegation of ‘attempting to procure a murder’ (though this was dropped soon after).  And then early in 2016, its cap-wearing gravel-voiced Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson departed due to damaged hearing, although Johnson claimed this was caused less by his fronting one of the world’s loudest bands than by his love of auto-racing.  And finally, a week ago, AC/DC’s veteran bassist Cliff Williams, who’d announced his retirement in July, played his final gig with the band.


It reminds me of one of those Final Destination horror movies, wherein a group of people manage somehow to cheat death.  But then by way of revenge, Death – though in AC/DC’s case it’s plain old Bad Luck – starts to ruthlessly hunt them down one by one.


AC/DC and myself go back a long time together, so seeing the band disintegrate like this feels as painful as seeing a once-strong friend grow old and succumb to infirmity and senility.  Their 1979 album Highway to Hell was among the first albums I ever bought and rarely have the opening chords to an album (and its title track) sounded so much like a statement of intent: DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH, DUH, DUH-DUH!  Here were an outfit, it seemed, who were seriously determined to blow your arse off with their guitars.  Which was surely what heavy metal – and for that matter, rock and roll itself – was all about.


© Atlantic Records


Around the same time I took it upon myself to throw a party for my school friends at my family’s farmhouse near Peebles, Scotland, one Friday while my parents were away for the evening.  The inevitable happened.  Most of the guests turned up armed not only with copious and illegitimately-purchased bottles and cans of booze but also armed with AC/DC records.  Indeed, it seemed that the AC/DC song Touch Too Much, recently released as a single, wasn’t off the turntable for the entire, chaotic, alcohol-drenched evening.  No wonder that after that the music of AC/DC was indelibly linked in my mind with images of drunken teenage debauchery.


(During the short margin of time between the party ending and my parents returning, I managed to cram all the empty bottles and cans into two big sacks and hide them in the rarely-accessed roof-space of a rarely-used outhouse, where they remained undiscovered for nearly 20 years.  They weren’t found until the late 1990s when my parents had the outhouse converted into a holiday cottage.  After the discovery, the building contractor jokingly asked my Dad if he was a secret drinker.)


Briefly, it looked like I’d discovered the band too late, for in 1980 AC/DC’s original vocalist Bon Scott died a sudden and very rock-and-roll death – heavy-partying-related alcohol poisoning.  The band’s two driving forces, Malcolm Young and his brother and fellow guitarist Angus Young, considered calling it a day at this point.  Instead, though, they recruited Brian Johnson as a replacement and AC/DC rumbled on for a further three-and-a-half decades.  It helped that the band’s first post-Bon Scott album was a cracker – 1980’s Back in Black, featuring such splendid tunes as the title track, You Shook Me All Night Long and the epic Hell’s Bells, which begins with the clanging of a huge church-bell before Johnson starts hollering apocalyptic lines like “Lightning flashing across the sky / You’re only young but you’re gonna die!”  By now I was a senior pupil at Peebles High School and Hell’s Bells never seemed to be off the turntable of the stereo in the senior-school common room.


The nice thing about AC/DC was that they never changed.  No matter what terrible events took place in the world – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, plagues, Simon Cowell – they just carried on, churning out the same (or very similar) riffs and singing songs about partying, shagging, boozing and having a generally good time.  I tracked down and listened to their back catalogue: albums like 1976’s High Voltage (whose opening track It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll exposed me to the lethal combination of electric guitars and bagpipes – despite being officially Australian, the Young brothers and Bon Scott had been born in Scotland and liked to honour their Caledonian roots); the same year’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, with its storming title track and the naughty music-hall pastiche Big Balls (whose lyrics included such gems as “Some balls are held for charity / Some balls are held for less / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best” – yes, it’s sad that I still remember this stuff); and 1978’s Powerage, which no less a personage than Keith Richards has identified as one of his favourite albums ever.




There was a lot of love for AC/DC in the world, though you wouldn’t have thought so reading the music press then.  Writers in 1980s music magazines like the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, if they got around to acknowledging the band’s existence at all, were of the opinion that AC/DC and heavy metal generally represented everything ignorant, crass and embarrassing in modern culture – unlike the two ‘in’ musical genres at the time, punk rock and indie music.  (For the record, I should point out I’m a big fan of punk and indie too.)


This disdain was shared by many people I met when I went to college in the early-1980s, who seemed to be either Smiths fans or Style Council fans or Simple Minds fans.  I remember one early college flatmate, a supercilious type who’d been schooled at the prestigious Glasgow Academy, wandering into my room one day, finding me listening to Highway to Hell, and demanding, “How can you listen to that shit?”


To be honest, AC/DC didn’t help their cause during the 1980s because they released a series of shonky albums that were shadows of their 1970s predecessors: 1983’s Flick of the Switch, 1985’s Fly on the Wall and 1988’s Blow Up Your Video.  In 1986 they also did the music for the dire Stephen King movie Maximum Overdrive, released as an album under the title Who Made Who.  Stephen King is a huge AC/DC fan, by the way.


It wasn’t until 1990 that the band rediscovered their mojo with The Razor’s Edge.  Although it wasn’t great, it served up two of their best songs for a long time, Are You Ready and Thunderstruck.  The latter track is still considered so rousing that, Wikipedia informs me, Atlético Madrid play it on their team coach every time they approach their opponents’ stadium for an away game.


Another reason why the band’s star was back in the ascendant was because those pretentious music critics who’d dissed them in the 1980s had been replaced by a younger generation of critics who, like me, had grown up listening to and loving AC/DC and were happy to give them some praise.  AC/DC had also proved more influential than anyone had predicted – their sound imprinted on the DNA of acts like the Cult, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and the Beastie Boys.  It’s even said that Back in Black was the first song a 14-year-old Kurt Cobain learned to play on guitar.


Thankfully, the band managed to preserve their reputation through the 1990s and early 21st century with a series of albums that, while not earth-shattering, at least delivered the goods and always yielded a single or two that sounded satisfyingly AC/DC-ish: 1995’s Ballbreaker, 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust, which contained the jolly single Play Ball.  As you may have gathered, the word ‘ball’ has an important place in the AC/DC lexicon.


But sadly, it now looks like it’s almost over for AC/DC.  I say ‘almost’ because since Brian Johnson left the line-up, the band has continued performing with vocals provided by Axl Rose of the legendary Los Angeles metal band Guns n’ Roses; and it’s lately been reported that Angus Young and Axl Rose intend to keep recording and performing under the AC/DC moniker.  Rose’s recruitment was met with dismay by many fans, though I have to say I don’t dislike Axl Rose or Guns n’ Roses.  Indeed, I have their albums Appetite for Destruction (1987), Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident (1993) in my record collection.  It’s just that Rose’s tremulous American voice doesn’t sound right singing the AC/DC back catalogue.


And call me superstitious if you like…  But the fact that he debuted with AC/DC confined to a wheelchair, with a broken foot, and looking like a heavy metal version of Doctor Strangelove, doesn’t seem a good omen for the vitality and longevity of this weird new incarnation of the band.


© Metro


No, I can’t help but think of AC/DC now in the past tense.  But I’m sure I’ll be reliving that past in years to come by listening to Highway to Hell, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Powerage and Back in Black a billion more times.


This week’s favourite song of all time




Great news!  I’ve found a brand new Favourite Song of All Time.  For this week anyway.


Actually, I find a brand new Favourite Song of All Time practically every week of my life.  In the past this title of Favourite Song of All Time has been held by everything from Jubilee Street by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Duality by Slipknot, from The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash to Bikini Girls with Machine Guns by the Cramps, from Welcome to the Terrordome by Public Enemy to Touch Too Much by AC/DC, from Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada to John Carpenter’s theme for Assault on Precinct 13.  (All right, those last two are ‘tunes’ rather than ‘songs’.)  A very long time ago, when I was very young, I remember the title being held by such epics as Benny Hill’s Ernie (“And he drove the fastest milk-cart in the west”) and David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome (“Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”)  See?  Poor David Bowie is dead now but I still can’t shut up about The Laughing Gnome.


I discovered this week’s Favourite Song of All Time when recently I visited a second-hand CD, vinyl and DVD fair held near where my family live in Scotland.  While I scoured a rack of old rock-and-pop CDs, a sudden and inexplicable impulse compelled me to fork over four pounds for a compilation called The Very Best of Rainbow.


Rainbow were formed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after he quit the seminal heavy metal band Deep Purple in the mid-1970s.  Actually, lots of people were quitting Deep Purple and starting new groups in those days.  Another was former Purple vocalist David Coverdale, who formed the band Whitesnake.  I became aware of Blackmore and Coverdale’s post-Purple projects when I noticed at school how the heavy metal kids had split into two antagonistic factions, those who had the Rainbow logo stitched onto the backs of their denim jackets and were always slagging off Whitesnake, and those with the Whitesnake logo on their jackets who were always slagging off Rainbow.  It resembled a head-banging version of the rivalry that broke out in the Soviet Union between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin was incapacitated.


There was actually a third musical splinter from Deep Purple – the band Gillan, run by Ian Gillan, who’d been the Purple vocalist prior to Coverdale.  However, the one thing that seemed to unite the Rainbow and Whitesnake factions at my school was the belief that Gillan’s outfit were a pile of old bollocks.


Rainbow found fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they reached the UK singles top ten with rocked-up power ballads like Since You Been Gone and I Surrender, the former with vocals by Australian Graham Bonnet and the latter sung by Bonnet’s replacement, American Joe Lynn Turner.  These songs gave me the impression that, for a supposed heavy metal band, Rainbow were a bit lame and soppy.  This was an era, after all, when Mötorhead were blowing the roofs off teenage parties and giving parents ear-bleed with Ace of Spades.  However, a listen to The Very Best of Rainbow has reminded me that in the years before Bonnet and Turner, the band had a very different type of vocalist: Ronnie James Dio.




Dio, at five feet, four inches tall, wasn’t the biggest physical presence in heavy metal.  But he had a big voice – an Italian-American, he was heavily influenced by opera, especially by the 1950s tenor Mario Lanza.  He also had a big vision, for he was into all things medieval and particularly into Lord of the Rings-style medieval fantasy.  No wonder that he was fronting a band called Elf when he hooked up with Blackmore.  And his obsessions inform the highlight of his collaboration with Blackmore: the stomping anthem Stargazer, originally found on the 1976 Rainbow album, Rising.  When I listened to Stargazer the other day, I immediately thought: “Wow!  That’s my favourite song of all time!”


Stargazer begins with a madcap cacophony of drums courtesy of Rainbow’s then drummer, the late Cozy Powell.  (By the time of his death in 1998 Powell seemed to have belonged to every heavy metal band that’d ever existed, including Whitesnake, the Michael Schenker Group, Black Sabbath and Yngwie Malmsteen.  For a while he was even in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who renamed themselves Emerson, Lake and Powell during his tenure.)  Then we get into the song proper: an unstoppably slugging riff and Dio hollering ominously about a wizard who glides ‘lighter than air.’  When the song rises towards the first of many crescendos, so the hairs rise too on the back of your neck as Dio wails: “Oh, I see his fa-a-ace!”


So what’s going on?  As the song progresses, it transpires that a powerful wizard – one of the Saruman rather than the Gandalf variety – has enslaved an army of people and set them to work constructing an impossibly-high tower, as in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  But his purpose is not to reach heaven.  When the thing is finished, he intends to jump off the top of it and fly.  I like how Dio gives the tale a proletarian tone by telling it from the point of view of one of the wizard’s slaves.  Thus the chorus goes: “In the heat and the rain / With whips and chains / Just to see him fly / So many die! / We build a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone / Just to see him fly / Don’t know why!”


Right on, Ronnie.  Up the workers!


Much of the music is splendid, flavoured with a delicious Middle Eastern sound that accords with lyrics like “Hot wind moving fast across the desert.”  Supposedly, Blackmore used an unidentified Turkish instrument during the recording and I assume it contributes a lot to Stargazer.


© Polydor Records


Incidentally, if the song sounds heavy even by the standards of 1970s heavy metal, it’s because you’re not just listening to Rainbow.  For the recording, Blackmore managed to recruit the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, so you can hear them clunking around in there too.  Yes, if you’re going to go over the top, you might as well do so in style.


Also going over the top, two-thirds of the way through, is the wizard, who climbs the completed tower in preparation for flying.  And guess what happens next?  “No sound as he falls instead of rising / Time standing still, now there’s blood on the sand”.  With the vainglorious wizard reduced to a sticky red smear back on terra firma, the slave-narrator finds himself unexpectedly free.  The song ends with Dio singing, “I’m coming home, coming home, I’m coming home!”


The song isn’t perfect.  Around the five-minute stage, Blackmore’s guitar doodlings reach barely-acceptable levels of wankiness.  But overall, those eight minutes and 26 seconds of Stargazer are a great deal of fun.  Its crunching riffage would, for instance, sound brilliant played in a cheesy giant monster movie, during a scene where two Godzilla-type behemoths slug it out in the middle of a city and flatten everything around them.  Actually, Guillermo Del Toro could do worse than buy the rights to Stargazer when he finally gets around to filming Pacific Rim II.


Rainbow initially folded in 1984, but returned for four years in the 1990s with Scotsman Doogie White as their fourth vocalist.  And I’ve heard that during the summer of 2016 the band has been playing concerts again, though apart from Blackmore the line-up is a completely new one.


Meanwhile, Ronnie James Dio formed his own band, Dio, in 1982.  He also managed, over the years, to be a member of Black Sabbath – his albums with them, Heaven and Hell (1980), Mob Rules (1981) and Dehumanizer (1992), are the only Sabbath ones without Ozzy Osbourne on vocals that are worth listening to.  An endearing and witty character who clearly didn’t take himself too seriously – check out his cameo appearance in the Jack Black comedy Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006) or his interview in the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – he sadly died from stomach cancer in 2010.


By the way, it’s said that Dio invented the ‘devil’s horns’ salute that’s ubiquitous at heavy metal concerts today.  He allegedly got the idea for it from a superstitious Italian grandmother who’d raise her index finger and little finger as a way of warding off the evil eye.  If this is true, then heavy metal fans owe a lot not just to Dio, but also to Dio’s granny.




You sexy thing




When I saw the headlines a day ago about ‘Prince’ being ‘dead’, my first thought was that the 67-year-old Prince Charles had popped his clogs.  And he’d done so with impeccable timing.  Expiring on April 21st was the perfect way to upstage the celebrations going on in the UK for his mother’s 90th birthday.


Alas, the dead person in question turned out to be Prince Rogers Nelson, i.e., the singer and musician Prince; who for a time used the moniker ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’ and who was sometimes represented by this squiggly symbol, half-tomahawk and half-bugle:




People around the world have reacted to news of his death with shock, but personally I’m not surprised that Prince has passed away.  The wee man just didn’t seem to sleep, which can’t have been good for him.  Rather, he spent 24 hours a day living life to its creative full.  And then some.


By this year he’d composed and recorded enough songs to fill nearly 40 albums, and I’m sure he’s left vaults crammed with enough unreleased material to keep a posthumous Prince-albums industry going for decades to come.  And he played most of the music on his songs – it’s said he had mastery of 27 musical instruments.  And he produced records.  And when he wasn’t toiling in the studio, he was on the road, doing 28 tours in 37 years, playing gigs that lasted for hours at huge venues like London’s O2 Arena and huge events like the American Superbowl (where his 2007 half-time gig was hailed as the best ever) but also in tiny late-night clubs and bars.  And he was writing his memoirs, and doing the odd bit of acting and directing, and chapping on doors on behalf of his local branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and funding public libraries in black neighbourhoods, and partying, and, ahem, possibly indulging in some heavy duty love-action with the ladies – such as Vanity, Sheila E, Kim Basinger, Madonna and Sherilyn Fenn from Twin Peaks.


Yes, in human years, he was only 57 when he died.  But in Prince years, he must have been well into his nineties.


(c) Paisley Park Records / Warner Brothers


It seems unlikely that someone with my musical tastes and outlook on life could get into Prince’s funky, soul-infused brand of psychedelic pop music in the 1980s, but that was the pint-sized Minneapolitan’s charm – he could appeal even to people like me, whose idea of bliss was to sit in a darkened room with a crate of Newcastle Brown Ale listening to Happy When It Rains by the Jesus and Mary Chain.


And I did get into him for a time.  He was responsible for great albums like Purple Rain (1984), Around the World in a Day (1985) and Parade (1986) and great songs like Let’s Go Crazy, Pop Life, Raspberry Beret and Kiss.  In 1987, he reached his high-water mark with the release of the double album Sign o’ the Times, whose title song is one of his best – it remains splendid despite the fact that Simple Minds did a cover version of it.  The album also featured the salacious If I was your Girlfriend, the belting Housequake and the rocking U Got the Look, which is splendid too despite the fact that Sheena Easton sings on it.  Thinking about it now, Prince did well in the late 1980s to survive this conspiracy by duff musical acts from Glasgow to ruin his reputation.


It couldn’t last, of course.  Lovesexy (1988) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) suggested that things were getting wobbly, though I really like Thieves in the Temple and Melody Cool from that latter album.  And in between the two, in 1989, he released the Batman soundtrack album, which was, frankly, pants.  No wonder that in Shaun of the Dead (2004), while they’re rifling through his vinyl record collection in search of some anti-zombie ammunition, Simon Pegg gives Nick Frost permission to chuck a copy of Batman at an advancing ghoul.


(c) Working Title / Universal Pictures


Thereafter, Prince never stopped churning the records out and I kept buying them: Diamonds and Pearls (1991), The Black Album (1994), The Gold Experience (1995), etc.  It seemed I couldn’t avoid buying them, as there were so many of the bloody things and they turned up everywhere, including at the second-hand music shops and record fairs where I did so much of my musical shopping.  Their quality was variable, but there was always something on them that I liked – for example, Pussy Control on The Gold Experience, a song so lewd I suspect even AC/DC would have turned it down on grounds of taste.


When someone dies, we’re usually urged not to dwell on the sad fact of the person’s death but to celebrate their life instead.  And that’s actually easy to do with Prince, because he lived such a hectic, endlessly-creative and no-second-wasted life.


He talked the talk and he walked the walk.  Which is important when your songs are mainly about bonking.


Bowie’s mural



I always had this idea that David Bowie spent his childhood in a nice big house in a beautiful expanse of English countryside.  I assumed this because I once saw a version of the classic animated Christmas movie The Snowman (1982) that he narrated.  He appears in the movie’s live-action introduction and tells us about an extraordinary event that happened to him one wintertime when he was a little boy: “That winter brought the heaviest snow I’d ever seen.  The snow fell steadily all through the night and when I woke up, the room was filled with light and silence, and I knew then it was to be a magical day…”  What happens is that little David leaves his country house, trudges out into the snowy fields and makes a snowman, and this snowman comes to life, befriends him and takes him to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus.  Wow, I thought.  No wonder Bowie went on to make all those weird albums like Space Oddity (1969) and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) after he’d grown up!


However, when Bowie sadly passed away on January 10th, I discovered that he’d actually been born and raised in south London, first in the district of Brixton and then in the suburb of Bromley.  Which meant that he hadn’t spent his childhood in the English countryside, and he hadn’t built a snowman that came to life, and he hadn’t met Santa Claus at the North Pole.  Damn it, David – you lied to me!


But no matter.  Folk in Brixton are understandably proud that David Bowie hailed from their neck of the woods and a while back someone painted a picture of him from his Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane period on a wall in Tunstall Road there.  As soon as Bowie’s death was announced, this mural became a place of pilgrimage for Bowie-philes and was quickly transformed into a shrine to his memory.


Coincidentally, the other day, I was visiting a mate in Brixton and I happened across the Bowie mural / shrine – well, I could hardly miss it, since it’s at the mouth of Tunstall Road just across from the entrance to the local tube station.  By this time, the wall with Bowie’s red-lightning-streaked features was propping up a waist-high scrum of offerings – mainly bouquets of flowers, but there were also candles, dolls, teddy bears, action-figures, wine bottles, beer-bottles, letters, cards, pictures and, for some odd reason, a tin of spam.



Meanwhile, people had stuck up more flowers, pictures and letters on the brickwork around the mural, as well as newspaper cuttings and even a vintage issue of Jackie, that ‘weekly magazine for girls’ once published by D.C. Thomson, which had Bowie on its cover.  (It also boasted of having pin-ups inside for ‘Bryan Ferry, Elvis, Alice Cooper and Noddy Holder’, so it was vintage indeed.)



The wall had acquired a few pieces of Bowie-related graffiti, but that was nothing compared to the white-backgrounded hoarding just along from the mural, which in the past few days had become smothered in scribbled tributes and epitaphs to the departed rock god.  Many of these messages were cosmic in tone, in accordance with his early 1970s stage persona: ‘Rest in space’, ‘See you on our red planet’, ‘Our star in the sky’ and so on.


I found it ironic that the ads on those hoardings, which Bowie’s fans had so defaced, were for various beauty products.  Surely, I thought, in view of what Bowie did to popularise the use of make-up – among boys as much as among girls – the cosmetics industry wouldn’t begrudge this small act of vandalism by the great man’s admirers?



Bowie’s music


(c) BBC


That was weird.  On Sunday afternoon I was in a cinema waiting for the start of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight when an advertisement was shown for the new David Bowie album Blackstar.  The ad included footage of the old boy himself, singing into a microphone – looking a bit thin and frail, it must be said, but then he always did look a bit thin and frail.


Almost exactly 24 hours later, I’m sitting in a pub in Edinburgh and a friend tells me that David Bowie has just died.  What?!


I nearly find myself suspecting that Bowie hasn’t kicked the bucket at all.  That this Bowie-is-dead stuff is really the latest piece of art / musical theatre that the famously enigmatic star has devised, only this time involving not just himself and his musical collaborators but the entire world media and the music-loving public.  That it’s a more elaborate reworking of the Paul McCartney-is-dead urban legend that was spawned by supposed clues in the Revolution 9 track on the White Album (1968) and the cover of Abbey Road (1969).  And in a few days’ time it’ll be announced that – surprise! – Bowie was only play-acting and he’s actually still alive.  Well, his latest single is called Lazarus.


I think I was unlucky with Bowie because the period during which I got seriously into music – i.e. my teens – was the period during which he appeared most like a normal rock star.  That’s to say for an initial few years he seemed both ubiquitous and brilliant; but then, like nearly every other rock star, his ideas seemed to dry up and he went into apparently terminal decline.


But how brilliant he was to begin with.  When I was 13 or 14, he’d turn up on Top of the Pops singing ace songs like Boys Keep Swinging (1979) or Fashion (1980), which would be discussed at length by me and my mates the next day at school in Peebles, our hometown in Scotland.  (I also remember how our local newspaper, the Peeblesshire News, would print a chart of the week’s best-selling singles at the town’s record shop under the headline On the Turntable.  One week somebody in the Peeblesshire mistakenly transcribed Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging as Boys Keep Swimming – a gaffe that was reprinted in prestigious British music-mag the New Musical Express for the nation’s amusement.)


1980 saw Bowie secure the number-one spot with his single Ashes to Ashes, which seemed a big event indeed.  The day after the announcement that Ashes to Ashes had topped the chart, I recall one classmate saying with finger-wagging solemnly: “See they folk whae dinnae like the song?  They’re just tae stupid tae understand it.”   By the way, the image of Bowie made up as a white-faced pierrot in the video for Ashes to Ashes has for some reason haunted me ever since.




A year later, Bowie was back at number one, this time collaborating with Queen for the single Under Pressure.  I didn’t rate Under Pressure highly at the time, though in the years since it’s grown on me.  It’s just a pity that the song was demeaned when gormless hip-hopper Vanilla Ice incorporated its bassline into his wretched 1990 single Ice Ice Baby.  (I remember being at a disco in the clubhouse of Peebles Rugby Club one night when the DJ put on Ice Ice Baby.  The bassline started and everyone cheered and hurried onto the dance floor, thinking it was David Bowie and Queen.  Then the lyrics started – “Yo!  Let’s kick it!  Ice, ice baby…” – and everyone threw up their hands in horror, shouted, “Och, shite!  It’s Vanilla Ice!” and cleared off the dance floor again.)


In 1983 Bowie hooked up with musician and producer Nile Rodgers for his Let’s Dance album.  Around then I heard serious long-term Bowie-philes grumble about the great man finally losing it and / or selling out.  Nonetheless I liked that album’s singles, Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love, because although they had typically flashy 1980s production values there still seemed enough of Bowie’s other-worldliness in them to make them special.  Unfortunately, thereafter, Bowie did lose it.  Subsequent albums like Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) were lacklustre, he arsed around doing duets with the likes of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, and he seemed more interested in his acting career.  (His heavy involvement in the cinematic train-wreck that was Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners in 1986 did nothing for his street-cred either.)  By the time he unveiled his dire Tin Machine project in 1989 I decided that things were well and truly over for Mr B.


People whose opinions I respect tell me that Bowie began to get good again from the mid-1990s onwards, with albums like Black Tie White Noise (1993) and Heathen (2002), but by then I was too busy listening to other bands, musicians and singers to pay him much attention.


It wasn’t until the noughties, when I started reading a lot about the types of music I liked – in books such as Lucifer Rising (2000) and Goth Chic (2002), both by rock journalist and author Gavin Baddaley – that I realised how important and influential Bowie had been.  A score of musical genres during the 1980s and 1990s, including Goth, indie, synth, industrial and Britpop, were hugely in debt to him.  That encouraged me to start listening to his back catalogue, to albums such as the soaring Hunky Dory (1971) and the apocalyptic Diamond Dogs (1974).  (I remember having a schoolmate called Roger Small, who was one of those annoying folk who, no matter how hard you tried to be cool, always seemed to be ten times cooler than you were.  I also recall him having the words Diamond Dogs scrawled in blue biro across the surface of the canvas satchel he used as a schoolbag.  So now I understand why he was cooler than me.)  And of course I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Bowie’s celebrated ‘Berlin’ trilogy of albums: Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).


(c) RCA Records


Bowie looms large among the influences and inspirations for many of my favourite bands: Joy Division, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Smiths, Nine Inch Nails, Suede, the Smashing Pumpkins, Pulp, Marilyn Manson, LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire.  Indeed, if he hadn’t existed, half the bands I’m into wouldn’t have been half as good.


For that reason, I’m now going to head off and sink a few drinks to the old fellow’s memory.  Cheers, David.


Movie mood music


(c) Stage 6 Films


Recently, I wondered what my favourite pieces of ‘movie mood music’ were.


By movie mood music, I mean compositions that are instrumental – sorry, Celine, no singing (or in your case, caterwauling) allowed.  I also mean compositions that fit closely with certain scenes or themes in the films they accompany, to the point where it’s difficult to imagine one without the other.  And I mean compositions that aren’t so grandiose that they need to be belted out by whole orchestras.  No, they have to be intimate.


For that last reason I’ve excluded film music by the likes of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrman and John Barry.  And for the sake of simplicity and brevity, I’ve limited my choices to the 21st century.  So, alas, I’ve had to eschew such composers as Lalo Schifrin, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter too.


Anyway, here are half-a-dozen such tracks from half-a-dozen movies that I can listen to repeatedly and always feel ‘moved’ by.


I’m old enough to remember Clint Mansell before he became a famous film composer.  For he was once lead singer with the unglamorous ‘grebo’ band Pop Will Eat Itself, whose finest hour was probably the hit single Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies! in 1993.  I was thus a wee bit surprised in 1998 when I went to a cinema to see Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and discovered that its marvellously frantic and pulsing music was the work of a now reinvented Mr Mansell.


Aronofsky is the director with whom Mansell is most associated.  He’s contributed scores to subsequent Aronofsky movies like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2005), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014).  But for my money his greatest work is for the Duncan Jones-directed Moon (2009).  In particular, I love Welcome to Lunar Industries, the first tune on that film’s soundtrack album.  Its plaintive piano sound captures both the loneliness of the film’s setting – the moon’s surface – and the melancholy of its storyline, which is about the sole human inhabitant (Sam Rockwell) of a futuristic lunar mining installation discovering the tragic truth about who and what he really is.


Incidentally, Mansell has teamed up with director Ben Wheatley for his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel High Rise, to be released later this year.  I can’t wait to see – and hear – that.


(c) Columbia Pictures


Similarly, Trent Reznor has a background as a rock musician.  He’s the mastermind behind the excellent industrial / synth / metal band Nine Inch Nails.  Unlike Mansell, though, he’s kept his original job going whilst also providing music for films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Gone Girl (2014), not to mention assembling the brilliant musical soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers back in 1994.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl were both directed by David Fincher, and it’s from another Fincher movie that Reznor worked on, 2010’s biopic of billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg The Social Network, that I’ve picked my next piece of music, Intriguing Possibilities.  With an urgent, high-tech sound that’s practically Reznor’s trademark, Intriguing Possibilities suggests the context of dizzyingly-fast technological change that facilitates Zuckerberg’s rise to fame and fortune.  It also suggests the entrepreneurial thought processes whirring endlessly inside Zuckerberg’s head.


I’ve heard people say that Intriguing Possibilities turns up too on the soundtrack to 2011’s Drive, but I can’t remember hearing it when I watched that movie on DVD a little while ago.


(c) Legendary Pictures / Syncopy


As Clint Mansell is to Darren Aronofsky and Trent Reznor is to David Fincher, so German composer Hans Zimmer is to Christopher Nolan.  So far he’s worked on Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005, 2008 and 2012), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014).  (Actually, Zimmer has had an equally productive, if less famous association with Ridley Scott – at my last count he’d worked on a half-dozen Scott movies, including 2000’s Gladiator.)


I really can’t not nominate Zimmer’s instrumental Time, which plays near the end of Inception when Leonardo Di Caprio and his team wake up from their dream-hacking mission and Di Caprio then goes home and is reunited with his children.  It’s a gorgeous piece of music and, again, it manages to capture the different themes running through the film.  Its grander moments evoke Inception‘s big ideas about taking dreams and transforming them into spectacular cinematic backdrops; while its more intimate moments reflect the personal trauma that’s quietly but mercilessly haunting its lead character.


Now onto something darker.  John Murphy’s In the House in a Heartbeat has appeared on various soundtracks, including the KickAss movies (2010 and 2013).  It’s even been used on the BBC’s motoring show Top Gear as an accompaniment for the antics of Jeremy Clarkson and co.  However, for me, In the House in a Heartbeat is about one thing only.  It’s about being chased by an army of slavering, hyperactive, blood-spewing zombies.  For yes, it’s the signature tune of the 28 Days Later movies.


(c) 20th Century Fox 


In Danny Boyle’s original 28 Days Later (2002), it plays during the climax when the zombie-virus breaks loose in a storm-lashed mansion-house where the civilian good guys and military bad guys are holed up.  During the sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), it plays on no fewer than three occasions: most memorably at the beginning, when Robert Carlyle legs it from an under-siege farmhouse, only to discover that lots of zombies are rushing across the surrounding fields towards himActually, that scene came to mind one day when I went jogging and In the House in a Heartbeat started playing on my Walkman – I did a lot of nervous looking-back over my shoulder.


Danny Boyle teased recently that he might return to direct a third film, called – what else? – 28 Months Later.  So I hope that Mr Murphy’s memorable tune will accompany more scenes of zombie-fuelled mayhem in future.  Its structure – uneasily gentle and mannered to begin with, then building to a thunderous climax – nicely mirrors the films’ plots, where civilisation gives way to nightmarish chaos.


(c) BFI / Film4


Even darker is the instrumental Death composed and performed by Mica Levi for the 2014 arthouse sci-fi / horror movie Under the Skin, in which Scarlet Johansson plays an alien vampire-ess preying on lecherous men in modern-day Glasgow.  The squealing, squalling and thudding Death accompanies the scenes where Johansson’s victims are lured into her apartment and meet a fate so unpleasantly weird that it’d give even David Cronenberg the jitters.  If Venus flytraps were sentient beings, Death is probably the sort of music they’d use to serenade one another.


Finally, I have to mention something by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who’ve overseen the music for films such as The Proposition (2007), The Road (2010) and Lawless (2012).  I think I’ll go for Another Rather Lovely Thing, from the soundtrack of the stylish and elegiac western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik and released in 2007. The eighth item on the soundtrack album, it’s a wistful, ruminative and, befitting its title, rather lovely thing.


(c) Warner Bros


Death log 2015, part 2


(c) Eon Productions


Continuing my tribute to people I liked who didn’t make it past 2015…


In January, the theatre, film and TV actress Geraldine McEwan passed away.  Prim and forthright, wry and twinkling, McEwan’s persona made her perfect for playing two of the greatest Misses in British literature.  In the 1970s she played the titular, self-assured but too-fond-of-Mussolini Edinburgh school-mistress in a TV adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Spark reckoned McEwan best captured the essence of Jean Brodie, an accomplishment considering that Vanessa Redgrave had already played her on stage and Maggie Smith had played her on screen.  And later, from 2004 to 2007, she played Agatha Christie’s deceptively spinsterish and demure-looking sleuth in a dozen instalments of Miss Marple.


July saw the departure of the great Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.  Though he was famous for his performances in David Lean’s epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and also for being the world’s most prominent bridge player, I’ll cherish Sharif most for playing the beleaguered Captain Brunel in Richard Lester’s 1974 thriller Juggernaut, which for my money is the best of the 1970s disaster movies.  Sharif’s calm and charm are put to the test when a psychotic criminal places six powerful bombs on board his passenger-stuffed cruise liner and – worse – the best the British government can do to help is send in a boozed-up bomb disposal expert played by the (at the time) boozed-up Richard Harris.


(c) United Artists


Writer Christopher Wood died in May, although his death wasn’t reported in the media until months later.  As well as co-writing the scripts for Roger Moore’s best James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and for his worst one, Moonraker (1979), Wood was responsible for those oh-so-British, oh-so-1970s sex-comedy Confessions of… books and films, which he wrote / scripted under the pseudonym Timothy Lea.  In an interview with Penthouse magazine, Wood opined, “They were funny then, and they’re funny now.  Then again, I always did like smut.”  I’ve written about Wood before on Blood and Porridge, here:


In September, the American actress Catherine Coulson died.  In her supporting role as the Log Lady in David Lynch’s much-loved Twin Peaks (1990-91), she provided that TV series with some of its funniest and most bizarre moments.  Before that, she’d helped to fund and served as assistant director and camera operator on Lynch’s breakthrough movie Eraserhead (1977); and she’d been married for a time to the late Jack Nance, who played the spectacularly bouffant-ed Henry Spencer in Eraserhead and the easy-going but henpecked Pete Martell in Twin Peaks.


(c) Lynch/Frost Productions


October saw the death of Denis Healey, British Defence Minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s.  He was described as ‘the best Labour Prime Minister Britain never had’ so often that I’m sure he was heartily sick of the phrase.  Still, it’s surely true that if the Labour Party had made the pugnacious and rambunctious Healey its leader in the 1980s, he’d have had a better chance than anyone else of ousting Margaret Thatcher from Number 10.  Instead, though, Healey ended up as deputy leader only, under the hapless Michael Foot.  Foot was a gentle, intelligent and very well-read man, but he belonged to a different political era; and the right-wing British press of the 1980s tore him to pieces.  (Mind you, Foot’s treatment seems mild compared to the abuse that’s been hurled at left-winger Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader in September this year.)


British film critic Philip French died in October too.  A reviewer for the Observer for a half-century, French was one of the few ‘establishment’ film critics whose opinions I could stomach during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  Unlike, say, Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, or the BBC’s Barry Norman, or the ubiquitous Leslie Halliwell, French wasn’t a prude and didn’t allow his tastes to be boxed in by what was deemed ‘respectable’.  Actually, unlike a lot of his peers, he seemed to genuinely like films.  He loved Western movies in particular; and he was about the only major British critic to laud Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – now seen as one of the classics – when it was released in 1982.


In 2008, French identified his all-time favourite movies.  His list included such worthy choices as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006).  I’m not so sure about his inclusion of Gandhi (1982) or Ratatouille (2007), though…


Gunnar Hansen died in November.  In 1974, this Icelandic-born actor played Leatherface, the most memorable of the serial-killing and cannibalistic Sawyer family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Masked, able to converse only in mewls and gibbers, and wielding the buzzing chainsaw of the title, Leatherface was initially one of the most terrifying characters in horror-movie history.  It’s a pity that his fearsomeness has gradually been lessened by familiarity, with successive sequels and remakes trying to turn him into a money-spinning franchise.




Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, who also passed away in November, was drummer with the great heavy metal band Motörhead during its glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He thumped the tubs, as they say, on 1977’s Motörhead, 1979’s Overkill, 1979’s Bomber, 1980’s Ace of Spades, 1982’s Iron Fist and 1983’s Another Perfect Day; although he played with them again from 1987 to 1992.  Devotees regard him as part of the band’s greatest line-up, alongside front-man and bassist Lemmy and guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke.  Alas, he wasn’t the only member of that line-up to succumb to the Grim Reaper during 2015:


Another hard-rocking fatality of 2015 was Scott Weiland, one-time vocalist with grunge band the Stone Temple Pilots.   I was sniffy about the Stone Temple Pilots when they appeared, seemingly riding on the coat-tails of Nirvana and Pearl Jam; but I suspect if I listened to their 1992 breakthrough album Core now, it would seem much better in retrospect – compared to the dross that’s clogged up the charts in the 23 years since.  Actually, I prefer the five years (2003-2008) that Weiland spent as vocalist with the super-group Velvet Revolver, whose line-up included three Guns N’ Roses alumni, Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum.  I’ll always remember Velvet Revolver for their performance during the Hyde Part component of the Live 8 concerts in July 2005.  Swaggering onstage and promptly unleashing a sonic assault of heavy metal, Weiland, Slash and chums blew away a whole park-ful of cocoa-sipping Elton John fans and tofu-munching Coldplay fans.


In November, Jonah Lomu – the 1.96-metre-tall Tongan-New Zealand rugby player once described as ‘the first true global superstar of rugby union’ – died at the tragically young age of 40.  Lomu will live on in my memory for his performance during the semi-final between New Zealand and England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  He laid waste to Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Rory Underwood, Mike Catt, Dean Richards and co. and helped his side knock 45 points past them.  Afterwards the Daily Telegraph described Lomu as “a runaway potting shed in boots” and said of the game generally: “If it had not added so much to English doom and despondency, it would have been permissible to laugh.”  To be honest, not being English, I laughed.


(c) The Guardian


Late 2015 was not a good time for old British character actors.  Warren Mitchell died in November.  Although Mitchell appeared in many low-budget British horror movies – The Trollenberg Terror (1958), Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Night Caller from Outer Space (1965) and Terry Gilliam’s medieval monster-fantasy Jabberwocky (1977) – and comedy movies – Postman’s Knock (1962), The Intelligence Men (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969) – he’ll be chiefly remembered for playing the reactionary loudmouth Alf Garnett in Johnny Speight’s 1960s / 1970s TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.  Speight intended Alf to embody the horribleness of right-wing bigotry.  Alf detested everyone outside his little bubble of white, Protestant, Conservative-voting southern Englishness, constantly insulted blacks, Pakistanis, Jews, Catholics, Scots, Welsh people and northerners, and at the same time was a hideous human being: selfish, cowardly, pig-ignorant and bullying.


It must have been galling for Speight (and Mitchell) when it became clear that many of the show’s fans hadn’t seen the irony.  They thought Alf was a hero for ‘speaking the truth’ and ‘telling it like it is’.  Mind you, that didn’t stop the two of them reviving Alf for further series in the 1980s, by which time he’d become a frail, pathetic old-age pensioner dependent on a home-help from the local social services, who happened to be – horror! – black; and for a final hurrah in 1997 with An Audience with Alf Garnett, which was broadcast on the eve of the general election that saw 18 years of Conservative rule come to an end and Labour sweep back to power under Tony Blair.  This was sly timing indeed, slice Tony Blair’s father-in-law was the actor Tony Booth, who’d played Alf’s layabout son-in-law in the original Till Death Us Do Part.


Also in November, British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey died.  The multilingual Jaffrey made over 150 movies in Britain, India and the States.  For me his finest hour was his supporting role as Ghurka soldier Billy Fish in John Huston’s epic adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  The film is regarded as a major entry in the CVs of its two stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine; but Jaffrey’s delightful performance as the quirky, loyal, courageous and ultimately self-sacrificing Billy Fish comes close to stealing the show from the two leads.


(c) Columbia Pictures


And in December Anthony Valentine died.  I’ll remember Valentine for appearing in every second TV show I watched as a kid – as a regular in Callan (1967-72), Colditz (1974) and Raffles (1975-77) and as a guest star in Department S (1970), Budgie (1971), Z Cars (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1975), Minder (1979, 1980 and 1983), Hammer House of Horror (1980), Tales of the Unexpected (1980 and 1982) and Bergerac (1983).  But the biggest impression he made on me was in the 1976 Hammer horror movie To the Devil a Daughter, during which satanic forces caused him to spontaneously and explosively combust inside a church – a dangerous ‘full body burn’ stunt that was actually carried out by Hammer’s main stuntman Eddie Powell.


Finally, December saw the death of respected Scottish journalist Ian Bell, who for as long as I can remember penned columns for the Scotsman, Daily Record and Herald – it’s for his work in that last publication that he was probably most celebrated.  In a journalistic / political era of soundbites, platitudes and simplifications, Bell was admirably unfashionable.  His writing was cerebral and ruminative and required concentration but, if you persevered, you’d have a hard time disagreeing with his arguments by the time you reached its end.   


If I’m not mistaken, his final column was a critique of the speech given recently in the House of Commons by Labour MP Hilary Benn (though it was cheered to the rafters by his Conservative counterparts) that called on Britain to join the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria.  “The great, acclaimed speech managed to say very little…” noted Bell.  “He did not explain why, having been wrong about three previous interventions, he had a remote chance of being right on this occasion.  He did not spare much of his passion on the risk of civilian casualties, despite all we know of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”  Spot on, Ian.  And farewell.


(c) The Herald