Songs and soundtracks

 

© Paramount Pictures / Touchstone Pictures

 

Looking at the Internet just now, it seems that everybody and their granny are writing feverishly – and ‘feverishly’ is an appropriate adverb – about the coronavirus, or to give it its more accurate and more Cronenberg-esque title, Covid-19.  Now that I’m facing a period of self-isolation / social distancing (not because I have the dreaded virus but because I live in Colombo and the Sri Lankan authorities have just declared a three-day public holiday, one where everybody is urged to stay indoors and which I suspect will last for longer than three days), I’ve decided to write a few things on this blog not about the coronavirus, but about all the stuff I’m really interested in.  So here, just for a change, is something about films… and music.

 

A pet hate of mine is a film whose soundtrack consists of some lazily selected popular songs.  I’m thinking of films where the filmmakers have just looked at the charts and grabbed a few songs to stick on the soundtrack to make their product seem hip; or, when the film is pitched at a more mature demographic, they’ve pilfered the charts of yesteryear for a few old songs that’ll give their audience a nostalgic glow while they watch the screen.  In both cases, this means they can also bung the songs onto a tie-in soundtrack album that will hopefully generate a few extra bucks after the film’s release.  However, no thought or effort has been taken to choose songs that actually enhance what’s happening onscreen, that create a musical / cinematic frisson whereby the song augments the film’s plot and visual imagery and vice versa.

 

I can think of some particularly painful instances.  For example, there’s Paul Feig’s generally pretty good comedy Bridesmaids (2011) which, after nearly two hours of raunchy, sometimes acerbic comedy about the ordeals that women have to put themselves through in order to achieve the ideal of a ‘perfect’ wedding, suddenly turns into a cringeworthy schmaltz-fest when the 1990 Wilson Phillips song Hold On starts caterwauling during the climactic wedding.  (To add insult to injury, the filmmakers actually wheel on Wilson Phillips to sing the song ‘live’ at the wedding reception, as if the bride, who’s already suffered a near-breakdown about the wedding’s expensiveness, could afford to hire Wilson Phillips for the evening.)  And this applies even to songs I really like.  I mean, I love the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, but I found it irritatingly distracting when it turned up in the rebooted Star Trek movies (2009-16).

 

Happily, things sometimes work the other way.  I still remember the rush I got when, at the end of The Matrix (1999), Keanu Reeves, now fully cognisant of his powers, steps out of a telephone box and shoots Superman-like up into the sky whilst Rage Against The Machine’s Wake Up thunders in the background.  Or the bit early on in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) where Harvey Keitel’s pensive, sharp-suited Charlie watches the trilby-hatted, devil-may-care Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) swagger towards him across a bar, arms draped over the shoulders of two ‘broads’, to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. You know immediately that Johnny Boy is bad news and, indeed, the scene serves as a mission statement for all the bad-news characters that De Niro would play later in his career.

 

Anyway, here are a few items that always spring to mind when I think of popular songs and film soundtracks – films that don’t just have one song smartly placed to enrich one scene, but that are choc-a-block with songs making a number of scenes extra-memorable.

 

I suppose I have to start with a film whose soundtrack may qualify for the title of my all-time favourite.  I’m talking about Oliver Stone’s 1994 bloodbath about lovers / serial killers on the run, Natural Born Killers.  For this, Stone hired Trent Reznor, the mastermind behind the mighty industrial / electronica / metal band Nine Inch Nails, to assemble a collage of music to complement the film’s often demented collage of visual styles.  You might have expected Reznor’s choices to form a continuous assault of brutal electronic noise, but what you actually get in Natural Born Killers is an eclectic delight.

 

© Warner Bros / Regency Enterprises

 

It’s brilliant from the start, when we see Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliet Lewis’s Mallory sitting in an oppressive out-in-the-sticks diner populated by leering, gun-toting rednecks while on the jukebox Leonard Cohen forebodingly croons Waiting for the Miracle.  Then Cohen’s Miracle abruptly gives way to L7’s Shitlist and Mickey and Mallory slaughter the rednecks in a nightmarish burst of violence.

 

Other moments of wonder include the Cowboy Junkies’ version of Sweet Jane playing while Mickey and Mallory declare their love for one another (“The whole world’s coming to an end, Mal…” “I see angels, Mickey.  They’re coming down for us from heaven…”); Duane Eddy’s twangy The Trembler accompanying the approach of a tornado, which handily allows Mickey to escape from a prison hard-labour gang; Jane’s Addiction’s Sex is Violent segueing into Diamanda Galas singing I Put a Spell on You during a disturbing scene where Mallory seduces and murders a hapless gas-stand attendant (“Holy shit!  You’re Mallory Knox!”); and another thrilling deployment of Rage Against the Machine, this time their song Bombtrack, when Mickey grabs a shotgun and blasts his way free during a live TV interview he’s doing whilst incarcerated in Tommy Lee Jones’s high security jail.  And you get Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, Peter Gabriel and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dr Dre, the Specials and, inevitably, Nine Inch Nails as well.

 

The accompanying soundtrack album doesn’t quite marshal together all the songs from the film – Rage Against the Machine and the Specials are conspicuous by their absence – but most of them are present, spliced together with memorable excerpts from the film’s dialogue.  It was definitely one of the best record releases of 1994.

 

I’ve already mentioned Martin Scorsese, with whose films a decent soundtrack is usually guaranteed.  I sometimes find them a little too retro, though – the characters depicted may start off in the 1960s, but they age during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, yet it’s often still 1960s music playing in the background.  For example, Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas (1990) has become a cocaine fiend by the early 1980s, though it’s the Rolling Stones’ 1969 epic Gimme Shelter we hear accompanying his binges.

 

This isn’t an issue with my favourite Scorsese soundtrack, which belongs to one of his less acclaimed films, 1999’s  Bringing Out the Dead.  This is the tale of a burnt-out paramedic played by Nicholas Cage patrolling the nocturnal streets of a particularly infernal version of New York.  He’s accompanied on different nights by different colleagues, played by Ving Rhames, John Goodman and an unhinged Tom Sizemore.

 

Bringing Out the Dead features a variety of songs that perfectly reflect its changing moods: Van Morrison’s wistful T.B. Sheets, REM’s jaunty What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? and the Clash’s hectic Janie Jones.  That last song accompanies a scene were the pill-popping Cage and Sizemore are fried out of their brains at the wheel of their ambulance – if you were lying ill on a sidewalk, you seriously wouldn’t want the pair of them showing up to administer first aid on you.  Elsewhere, the soundtrack includes the Who, Johnny Thunders and Martha and the Vandellas.  Even the one song that I normally consider a pudding, UB40’s version of Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, sounds spooky when it plays over a sequence where Cage ventures into the bloodstained aftermath of a gangland shooting.

 

© Pandora Cinema / Newmarket Films / Flower Films

 

From its opening sequence I knew I was going to love Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001).  It begins with an eerie quietude as Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) lies prone in the middle of a mountainside road and thunder crackles faintly but menacingly in the distance.  Then Donnie smiles, hops onto his bike and rides down to his wholesome 1980s American suburb accompanied by Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon.  As well as being an exhilarating mixture of visuals and music, this sequence provides some tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing.  Things will soon turn weird and Donnie will soon be troubled by visions of a big, literal bunny-man called Frank.

 

The rest of the soundtrack is a mixture of bona-fide classics like Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and The Church’s Under the Milky Way and cheese like Duran Duran’s Notorious.  But even Notorious becomes memorable when it’s used as the theme tune for Sparkle Motion, the ghastly school dance troupe of which Donnie’s little sister is a member.  And at the finale of course, when Gary Jules and Michael Andrews perform a melancholy, stripped-down version of it, the film does wonders for Tears for Fears’ Mad World.  This was previously a song I’d never given the time of day.

 

However, beware of the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, because in it Richard Kelly replaces Killing Moon as the opening song with INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart.  The bastard.

 

Inevitably, I’ve got to mention Lost in Translation (2003), Sophia Coppola’s intergenerational romance and fish-out-of-water cultural comedy, wherein a jaded, middle-aged Bill Murray and a radiant, young Scarlett Johansson are stuck at the same time in a luxurious Tokyo hotel.   Put together by Coppola’s frequent collaborator Brian Reitzell, the soundtrack features four songs by Kevin Shields and another, Sometimes, by Shields’s acclaimed experimental / shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine.  Neatly bookended by Death in Vegas’s Girls at the beginning and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey at the end, these evoke the surreal, discombobulating vibe that Tokyo often gives foreigners seeing it for the first time.  At least, that was the vibe it gave me when I first arrived there in 1989.

 

© American Zoetrope / Focus Features

 

Meanwhile, the karaoke box sequence in the middle of the film is lovely.  A Japanese lad tackles the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, Johansson warbles Brass in Pocket by the Pretenders, and Murray gives an impassioned rendition of Nick Lowe’s (What’s so Funny about) Peace, Love and Understanding and then a lovably wobbly one of Roxy Music’s More Than This.  The scene shows there are no cultural boundaries when it comes to enjoying decent music.

 

Lastly, I couldn’t finish without mentioning Edgar Wright, a movie director whose soundtracks are always furnished with the right songs.  His 2017 film Baby Driver won special praise for this, but I’d nominate an earlier Wright effort as my favourite – 2013’s comedy / sci-fi / horror film The World’s End.  This has a group of male friends in their early middle-age returning to their hometown in a new attempt to complete an epic pub crawl that they originally attempted but failed to complete when they were teenagers in 1990.  First, they’re dismayed to find that their old town has become a homogenised, identikit conglomeration of chain stores, fast-food franchises and bland Wetherspoon’s-type pubs that make it indistinguishable from every other town in Britain.  Then they’re horrified to find that it’s also been taken over by aliens who’ve replaced nearly everyone with blue-blooded robot replicants.

 

Predictably, Wright enjoys populating The World’s End’s soundtrack with stuff that his central characters would have listened to as youths in the late 1980s and early 1990s, namely indie, goth, the ‘Madchester’ rock-dance sound and the first Britpop offerings.  Thus, as the pub crawl / battle against aliens continues, you get to hear Saint Etienne, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Teenage Fanclub, Suede, Blur and Pulp.  You even hear the Inspiral Carpets and the Soup Dragons, so let it not be said that Wright leaves any stones unturned.

 

One song seems wildly out of synch with the characters’ timeframe, which is the Doors’ Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) from 1967.  But it’s appropriate for the film’s boozy premise and it does accompany an amusing sequence just after the heroes have realised that something severely strange is going on.  And the climax of The World’s End provides a rare thing indeed – not one but two songs, Primal Scream’s Loaded and the Sisters of Mercy’s This Corrosion, which aren’t just there for show but actually contribute something to the plot itself.

 

© Working Title Films / StudioCanal

 

My favourite gigs

 

From ticketcollector.wordpress.com

 

The other day, something made me sit down and compile a list of all the musical acts I’ve seen play live, along with details and dates for where and when I saw them.  I ended up with a list of 153 bands and performers, kicking off with that hoary old Scottish hard rock / heavy metal group Nazareth, whom I saw in Aberdeen in 1984; and culminating with mask-wearing Sri Lankan death metal band the Genocide Shrines, whom I saw in Colombo at the end of last year.

 

Anyway, as my previous blog-post dealt with an utterly depressing topic, I thought today I would write about something happy and imbued with the glow of nostalgia.  Here are the best musical gigs I’ve ever attended.

 

The Proclaimers – Aberdeen Ritzy, 1987

I didn’t know what to expect when some mates got me along to a concert by Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as Scottish folk-pop duo the Proclaimers.  I liked the Reids – their hit song that year, the politically charged Letter from America, was already becoming Scotland’s great anti-Maggie-Thatcher anthem – but I had no idea what they’d be like live.  Also, they were performing at Aberdeen Ritzy, a place I had an aversion to because I’d once worked there as a member of the floor-staff and it was probably the least enjoyable job I’d ever had.

 

Well, I had no reason to be apprehensive.  The gig felt like a giant, joyous football match where the entire crowd supported the same team and that team was winning 10-0.  I suspect one reason why the Proclaimers went down so well that night was because the Aberdonian audience could relate to their song Throw the R Away, which is about the frustrations caused when standard English-speakers can’t understand your accent.  Which of course is a common hazard if you speak fluent Aberdonian.

 

© Chrysalis

 

The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, Blur – the Rollercoaster Tour, London Brixton Academy, 1992

From Craig and Charlie Reid to two more Scottish siblings called Reid.  These were Jim and William Reid of the feedback-drenched East Kilbride noise-niks the Jesus and Mary Chain.  Their Rollercoaster Tour date at Brixton Academy in 1992 offered not only excellent support from American alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and dreamy, swirly shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, but also a chance to sample a young, up-and-coming band called Blur (though my reaction when I saw Damon Albarn onstage wasn’t that he was destined to be an icon of the future Britpop movement but that he resembled a musical version of Norman Wisdom).  Meanwhile, the headliners blew me away.  Promoting their recent album Honey’s Dead (1992), which was packed with behemoth tunes like Reverence and Sugar Ray, the Jesus and Mary Chain played their set as dark silhouettes against a huge blood-red backdrop and were simultaneously glorious, imperious, uncompromising and terrifying.

 

The Manic Street Preachers – Sapporo Penny Lane, 1993

Welsh rock band the Manic Street Preachers were promoting their album Gold Against the Soul when they turned up in the Japanese city of Sapporo, at whose Hokkai-Gakuen University I worked at the time as a lecturer.  In Britain they had a reputation for being shit-stirring retro-punks, but in Japan they were seen as a sort of Guns n’ Roses-lite, possibly thanks to their then-predilection for wearing eye-liner and glam-ish clothes.  Accordingly, their gig at Sapporo’s Penny Lane attracted a squad of young Japanese ladies dressed in floppy hats and silk scarves who spent their time squealing ‘Rich-ee!’ at the band’s iconic but troubled guitarist, Richey Edwards (who’d disappear, never to be seen again, two years later).  The gig was great, but Edwards was on edge.  At one point he raged against an illuminated fire-exit sign at the auditorium’s far end that he claimed was distracting him.  In a typical face-saving Japanese compromise, the venue manager didn’t turn the sign off – he just tied a big strip of cardboard over it so that nobody, including Richey, could see it, but it stayed switched on in accordance with fire regulations.

 

I bought the Japanese edition of Gold Against the Soul and I’ve always had a soft spot for it – maybe because its sound had a naively youthful quality that gave way to darker, more austere music on later Manics albums like The Holy Bible (1994) and Everything Must Go (1996).  Years afterwards, I listened to Gold Against the Soul again and discovered the CD case had a second tray that I hadn’t noticed before, containing a second, bonus disc – a live one of them performing in Japan.  I played it and immediately felt a nostalgic sadness, for in the crowd I could hear those Japanese ladies shouting “Rich-ee!” again at poor, doomed Richey Edwards.  It wasn’t so much a CD as a time capsule.

 

© Getty Images / NME

 

The Beastie Boys – Sapporo Jasmac Plaza, 1995

I almost didn’t attend this concert, which also took place while I worked at Sapporo’s Hokkai-Gakuen University.  The show was due to begin at 7.00 PM – concerts in Japan tended to start when the tickets said they would – and the same evening I had to give a late lecture until 7.20 PM.  Plus I calculated that by the time I got from the university campus to the venue, the Jasmac Plaza, the Beastie Boys would already be an hour into their gig.  It didn’t seem worth it.

 

However, a few weeks before the concert, it was announced that work had been completed on a new Sapporo subway line, which had a station called Gakuen-Mae directly below the campus where I was working.  I also discovered that the next station along the new line, Hosui-Suskino, had an exit that was only a block from the Jasmac Plaza.  And a subway train left for Hosui-Susukino from Gakuen-Mae every evening at 7.30.  I figured that if I caught the 7.30 train, and moved very fast, I could be at the concert hall in the Jasmac Plaza ten minutes later – hopefully not yet halfway through the Beastie Boys’ set.  Fate seemed to be urging me to buy a ticket, so I did.

 

That evening, I finished my lecture on the stroke of 7.20, ran like hell for the subway station and charged down what seemed like half-a-dozen escalators, descending deeper and deeper into the earth.  The train was already at the platform and I ran and jumped through its about-to-close carriage doors.  At Hosui-Susukino, I sprang out of the train, ran up more escalators, ran along a city block into the Jasmac Plaza and up several staircases to its fourth floor, where the concert hall was.  Live music blasted out of speakers above me.  I dashed into the hall, gasping for breath, my university lecturer’s suit, shirt and tie soaked in sweat…  And I discovered that the Beastie Boys weren’t onstage at all.  What I was hearing was a support act that hadn’t been mentioned on the bloody ticket.  The Beasties didn’t appear until forty minutes later.

 

After that, this needed to be a superb gig to justify all the hassle and indignity I’d suffered.  Which, thankfully, it was.

 

© Mute / Reprise

 

Nick Cave – Edinburgh Princes Street Gardens, 1999

During the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, goth-rock troubadour Nick Cave – sans his backing band the Bad Seeds – performed in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, which meant he had the craggy Edinburgh Castle rock, crowned by the battlements of the castle itself, as a spectacular backdrop.  But there was a problem.  Taking place in the castle was the Edinburgh Tattoo, that celebration of tartan-swathed, bagpipe-wailing Scottish military kitsch held every August; and the Tattoo organisers were not happy about having to compete against a concert below in the Gardens.  Indeed, a few evenings earlier, the Gardens had hosted the psychedelic / space-rock outfit Spiritualised and their percussive beats had caused the Lone Piper – the bagpiper who appears on the ramparts at the Tattoo’s finale to play the lament Sleep Dearie Sleep – to lose concentration and mess up the tune.  This evening, to placate the Tattoo, Cave wasn’t allowed to start playing until it had finished, meaning the audience turned up at the time specified on the tickets but then had to wait an hour.  (To keep us entertained, some local performance-poets were brought onstage, including the late, lamented Paul Reekie.)

 

One consequence of this was that when Cave finally did come on, the end-of-Tattoo firework display was erupting above the castle.  Talk about a spectacular entrance!  And the ensuing gig was worth the long wait.  The songs, mostly stripped-down versions of stuff from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call and 1996’s Murder Ballads, were wonderfully enhanced by the gothic surroundings – the rock, the castle and finally a gorgeous full moon ascending into the starry Edinburgh sky.

 

The Waterboys – Newcastle, Tyne Theatre and Opera House, 2003

In the mid-1980s, there was a considerable buzz about the Waterboys, who were expected to go stratospheric and join U2 and Simple Minds as one of the big Celtic rock bands of the era.  Instead, under the leadership of Edinburgh man Mike Scott, they decamped to Ireland and became a folk band for a while and rock superstardom never quite arrived.  Actually, I preferred their folky stuff (like 1988’s When Ye Go Away) to their rather bloated rock stuff (like 1985’s The Whole of the Moon).

 

For this 2003 gig in Newcastle, the band did an hour of gentle, melodic music (kicking off with a version of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, which Scott decided to play because he’d “had it in his head all day”); there was an interval during which everyone enjoyed a pint or four in the Opera House bar; and then it was back into the auditorium for a second hour of up-tempo rock music.  The relaxed and nothing-more-to-prove Scott clearly wanted to have a good time and wanted to give his Geordie audience a good time too – which he did, in spades.

 

From rescuerooms.com

 

Alabama 3 – Newcastle, University of Northumbria, 2005

This was the best blues / country / techno / electronica / indie / trip-hop / acid-jazz gig I’ve seen, courtesy of the best (and possibly only) band in the world whose music ticks all those boxes, the Alabama 3.  Eccentrically, they’re not from Alabama, but from South London; and there aren’t three of them, but eight or nine.  With so many band-members onstage, producing such a stew of sounds, this gig at the University of Northumbria was inevitably a bit of a shambles – but, God what a glorious shambles.  Particularly epic was their rendition of the track Woke Up This Morning, which at the time served as the opening theme for The Sopranos (1999-2007).

 

Primal Scream – Norwich UEA, 2009

In 2009, I didn’t expect a great deal when the Bobby Gillespie-fronted alternative rock band Primal Scream turned up at the University of East Anglia, where I was in the middle of a full-time MA.  Feeling creaky and long in the tooth by then, too old for the mosh-pit and for jumping around, letting myself go and getting into the swing of things, I assumed my best gig-going days were behind me.  Meanwhile, I’d seen Primal Scream a few times before and found them hit-and-miss.

 

But I ended up really, really enjoying this.  I managed to snag a position right at the front of the stage, giving me a perfect view of Bobby and the boys.  And they were in blistering form.  Primal Scream concerts can feel schizophrenic because their music veers between harsh, experimental electronica (like 2000’s Kill All Hippies) and loose-limbed, traditional Rolling Stones-style rock ‘n’ roll (like 1994’s Jailbird), but tonight, somehow it didn’t matter.  They alternated, doing one hardcore electronica number (accompanied by a brain-frying lightshow), followed by a Stonesy number, then another electronica one, then another Stonesy one, and so on – and it worked brilliantly.

 

From nme.com