The definite article

 

© Epic

 

I think it’s fair to say that 2017 does not feel like a good time to be alive.  Not only do we have a moron in the White House, a thug in the Kremlin and a zombie shambling around inside Number 10 Downing Street, but a chunk of ice as big as Delaware has collapsed off the side of Antarctica, scientists have announced that we’re now in earth’s sixth era of mass extinction, gonorrhoea has developed resistance to most antibiotics and become almost untreatable, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has procreated.

 

It’s surely a sign of these bleak times that I’ve found myself listening again to the music of post-punk / alternative band The The.

 

In existence since 1979, and graced with the most grammatically awkward name in musical history, The The is basically a one-man-operation by London singer, songwriter and musician Matt Johnson.  Other band-members have come and gone and come back again at different points in the studio and on stage, including former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and former Bowie guitarist Gail Ann Dorsey.  Also, a host of famous names have made one-off contributions to The The’s records – Johnson’s collaborators over the years have included Marc Almond, Neneh Cherry, Lloyd Cole, Jools Holland, Sinead O’Connor and J.G. ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell.

 

The The was especially prominent for a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, releasing a quartet of albums – Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1993) – which uniquely captured the zeitgeist of the era.  I heard about the band while I was at college though, to be honest, I resisted listening to it for a long time because the set of students I knew there who were The The fans happened to be a bunch of smug, self-consciously trendy tossers reminiscent of the Rik Mayall character in TV’s The Young Ones (1982-84).  (That, of course, wasn’t Matt Johnson’s fault.)  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that my brother gave me a recording of Infected on a cassette tape and I sat down and experienced The The’s music for the first time.  The result was love at first listen.

 

© Some Bizarre / Epic

 

Johnson’s songs had some wonderfully catchy hooks; and despite the presence of guitars, drums, horns and harmonicas, they came with a precise, shiny, synth-y polish that – unlike a lot of 1980s music – still sounds fresh and invigorating today.  However, Johnson’s lyrics were, for the most part, grim.  He wasn’t afraid to sing about what was going on in the world around him and, in the 1980s, much of what was going on seemed bloody horrible: the Reagan-Thatcher love-in, the coming of the Yuppies, the AIDS epidemic, the Ayatollah, the Iran-Iraq War, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Hillsborough, the Lockerbie Bombing, Tiananmen Square.  I have to say, though, that in terms of horribleness the last year or two have certainly given the 1980s a run for their money and I wonder if that’s why I suddenly find the band very relevant and listenable again.

 

Also, Johnson was willing to put his voice up front – his words didn’t get buried in the mix.  Thus, when I played my The The collection again recently, I immediately found myself singing along to it, so familiar had the lyrics been to me back in the day.  When I heard the simultaneously funky and sinister Sweet Bird of Truth (1986), I started mouthing the lines along with its narrator, a battle-scarred, psychotic war veteran: “Across the beaches and cranes, rivers and trains / All the money I’ve made, bodies I’ve maimed / Time was when I seemed to know / Just like any other little G.I. Joe / Should I cry like a baby, die like a man / While the planet’s little wars start joining hands…”  The words rushed back to me too when I listened again to The Beat(en) Generation (1989), which lambasts the apathy and materialism of 1980s youth, with Johnson accusing them of being “raised on a diet of prejudice and misinformation” and pleading with them to “open your eyes, open your imagination.”  It’s entirely consistent with The The’s style that while Johnson fulminates and despairs vocally, a harmonica breezes happily beside him and threatens to turn into the intro from The Beatles’ Love Me Do (1962).

 

Then there’s Armageddon Days are Here (Again) (1989), which for obvious reasons still sounds potent in 2017: “Islam is rising, the Christians mobilising / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creed.”   Later, he notes sourly, “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today / He’d be gunned down cold by the C.I.A.”  Or Heartland, (1986), which contains the lines, “This is the land where nothing changes / The land of red buses and blue-blooded babies / This is the place where pensioners are raped / And the hearts are being cut from the Welfare State,” and which ends with the refrain, “This is the 51st state of the U… S… A…”

 

Small wonder that when the music magazine Q reviewed a new The The album in the 1990s, it topped the review with the headline, CHEER UP, IT’S MATT JOHNSON.  Or as Johnson himself confessed in the lyrics of Slow Emotion Replay (1993), “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world / But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.”

 

© Epic

 

Then in 1996, Johnson did something surprising.  He released a The The album called Hanky Panky that consisted entirely of cover versions by the hard-livin’ (and early-dyin’) country-and-western troubadour Hank Williams.  On the face of it, The The and Hank Williams seemed to belong in different musical universes, but the result was surprising enjoyable.  Its highlights were a dark and diseased-sounding version of Honky Tonkin’ (“When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go / Call me up, sweet baby, and bring along some dough…”)  and an exhilarating one of I Saw the Light (“I saw the light, I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night!”).

 

Admittedly, Hanky Panky wasn’t to everyone’s tastes.  I was living in Japan when the album came out and I lent it to a Japanese friend who was not only an aficionado of Hank Williams but also a country-and-western singer and country-and-western DJ.  (I should say he was influenced by Hank’s hazardous lifestyle as much as he was by his music.  Whenever he suffered an alcohol-fuelled mishap, such as incurring burns on his forearms after toppling onto a barbecue at a party, he’d shrug it off with the philosophical observation, “Well, that’s what Hank Williams would have done too.”)  He gave Hanky Panky a couple of spins on his local radio show but confessed to me afterwards that he and his listeners were baffled by it.

 

The The released one more ‘proper’ album, 2000’s Naked Self, which gets unfairly overlooked in retrospectives of the band.  Among its songs, December Sunlight is gorgeous and Boiling Point shows Johnson still able to evoke grim scenarios where everything seems to teeter on the edge of disaster.

 

Thereafter, the band appeared to drop off the radar.   But Johnson remained busy in a slightly different field, working on movie soundtracks (still under the moniker of The The).  In 2012 he provided the music for the award-winning documentary Moonbug, about the astronauts who took part in the Apollo space programme.  He also contributed to two films directed by his brother, Gerard Johnson: 2009’s Tony, a nihilistic low-fi horror movie about a lonely, introverted and bullied man living in a London block of flats who turns out to be a serial killer; and 2014’s Hyena, a crime drama that reworks Abel Ferrara’s legendary The Bad Lieutenant (1992) with corrupt London coppers and Albanian gangsters.  For someone who’d always put an emphasis on words, the non-vocal soundscapes Johnson creates for these films are surprisingly effective.  Sequences like the one at the end of Tony where the title character wanders through the cold, hostile London night, or the one at the start of Hyena where a police team raids a dodgy London club and proves to be as mindlessly violent as the gangsters running the place, are boosted immeasurably by the presence of his music.

 

© Lazarus Limited

 

Soundtrack work aside, though, I’m sure the past 15 years have been frustrating ones for The The fans desperate for Johnson to make another fully-fledged album.  However, the wait seems to be nearly over, for recently a new The The single, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, was released and the band’s Wikipedia entry states that a new album is currently ‘in progress’.

 

In the meantime, if you feel a yearning for some sublimely catchy and groovy music combined with some of the angriest lyrics in pop and rock music, you could do far worse than listen to The The’s back catalogue.   Matt Johnson’s band really is the definite article.

 

Recent British horror movies

 

(c) Tigon Films

 

We’re less than seven months away from the referendum on Scottish independence and as Westminster-based politicians try to ramp up the threats (“You can’t keep the pound!”) and ramp up the guilt (“You’re dishonouring all those Scottish soldiers who died fighting for Britain!”) regarding what’d happen if people north of the border voted for independence, I find myself hoping more and more that independence will happen.  After all, when the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the Daily Mail urge me to do something, my gut instinct is to do the opposite.

 

However, there’s one thing at least that still makes me feel proud to be British.  That’s the cultural phenomenon known as ‘the British horror film’, a body of movies – a body of art – that’s fascinated me since I started watching late-night television when I was eleven or twelve years old.  Still now, I only have to stumble across an old Hammer horror film whilst channel-surfing and immediately God Save the Queen plays in my ears and a patriotic love of all things red, white and blue rises in my heart.  Indeed, if the Better Together campaign, which is urging Scots to vote to remain in Great Britain, could get celebrity endorsements from Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Michael Gough, Ingrid Pitt and Linda Hayden (who was the sexy leader of the devil-worshipping cult in 1971’s Blood on Satan’s Claw), I would probably switch my allegiance from the ‘yes to independence’ camp to the ‘no’ one.  However, as all those people are now dead, apart from the delectable Ms Hayden, that won’t happen.

 

According to recent newspaper reports, the British film industry generally is in dire straits – again – but somehow new British horror movies still surface.  They barely or never get shown inside a cinema, but they turn up on DVD and, after a while, get a couple of airings on the Horror Channel on Freeview.  Actually, some of them are so bad they don’t deserve the oxygen of publicity offered by a DVD release and the Horror Channel.  I tried watching something called Stag Night of the Dead the other evening and now feel I’ve inflicted serious damage on my cerebral cortex.

 

Anyway, one way or another, I’ve encountered quite a few new (or newish) British horror movies recently and I thought I’d share my thoughts about them.

 

Let’s get the dross out of the way first.  I’d heard a few things about Elfie Hopkins while it was in production in 2011 and it was obviously a vanity project.  But seeing as the vanity in question belonged to two people I liked – gruff and dependable character actor Ray Winstone and his daughter Jaime, who a few years ago was good in the Charlie Brooker-scripted zombie TV series Dead Set – I had hopes that it’d be worth watching.  I certainly didn’t expect the end product to be as irritating and vacuous as it was.

 

The story – a family who are secret cannibals move into a posh, rural English community that resembles a Midsomer Murders village and start chomping on their neighbours – is old hat and done with little flair or logic.  Also, it’s shocking how annoying Jaime Winstone is in the title role.  Think back to the most pretentious, conceited and full-of-bullshit kid whom you were unlucky enough to have in your class at school, the type who made you desperate to leave school, leave home, move somewhere else and hang out with people you actually liked, and you get some measure of her annoyingness here.  She’s particularly annoying when she’s (a) stoned, and (b) dealing with her geeky best male friend, whom she insists on calling ‘Parker’ (presumably a reference to Lady Penelope and Thunderbirds) and generally treats like dirt.

 

From beyondhollywood.com

 

Jaime’s formidable Dad pops up as the village butcher halfway through, gives a scary speech (like the one Robert Shaw gave in Jaws) and disappears again.  But from that you can probably work out how the film will end.

 

I wasn’t impressed either by 2012’s Community, the tale of two filmmakers venturing into a rundown Shameless / Benefits Street-type housing estate where a super-powerful type of cannabis is being cultivated and sold to the locals, with unfortunate results.  (The cannabis plants also need a particular type of compost.  Guess what that is.)  The filmmakers soon find themselves under assault by hoodie-wearing youths who behave like mad dogs.  Meanwhile, the person orchestrating the mayhem proves to be a sinister transsexual.  So we have housing estates, hoodies and transsexuals being negatively stereotyped.  It’s as if a reactionary, Daily Mail-type hate-list had been transposed to celluloid.

 

From www.horrornews.net

 

I know that by its nature – exploring people’s fears – horror fiction and horror films run the risk of appearing reactionary.  This goes right back to the days of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which tapped into common worries about foreigners, promiscuity and ladies getting too sexually liberated.  But I find these recent hoodie-horror movies (see also Eden Lake, F and Citadel) more and more annoying.  It feels increasingly facile of such films to use contemporary fears about a broken Britain populated by feral kids, hence demonising all kids from deprived backgrounds, as the source for their monsters and villains.

 

My other beef with Community is that it’s not very good.

 

And I didn’t much like 2012’s Sawney – Flesh of Man.  This modernises the old story of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean and his inbred family.  According to legend – or more accurately, according to English propaganda, because in medieval times England and Scotland didn’t get along and it was common for both sides to tell tales that blackened the other’s character – the Beans lived in a cave and devoured hundreds of hapless passing travellers.  Sawney – Flesh of Man would have you believe that a remnant of the Bean clan has survived in the 21st-century Scottish Highlands.  They still live in a cave and still eat human flesh.  Mind you, the cave has been updated and has all the accoutrements necessary for a modern-day cannibal / torture porn lifestyle: chairs with shackles, dissection benches, super-powerful blenders, etc.

 

These Beans consist of the clan-leader, played by David Hayman, who when food stocks run low nips across to Aberdeen and abducts unfortunate late-night revellers in a fake black taxicab; his brother, an outwardly respectable type who’s infiltrated the establishment, like Matt Damon did in The Departed, and is presumably doing his best to cover up the murders – being reared in a blood-drenched cave is apparently no barrier to getting through college and getting a decent job; a rabid she-monster shut away in the cave’s depths; a mute dwarf; and two hyperactive lads who tear around the Highland landscapes like a pair of wolves, wearing hoodies.  It’s indicative of the film’s lack of imagination that the best it can do for one-third of the cannibal clan is to depict them as hoodie-wearing psychos.  Again.

 

There are some fetching shots of the Scottish Highlands, but to be honest a director would have to be blind, and have a malfunctioning camera, to shoot a film in the Highlands and not make the place look fetching.  It might be unintentional, but Sawney – Flesh of Man gives the impression that it was filmed as a Hollywood calling-card by its director, a sort of ‘Look what I can do!’ movie made by someone with little interest in his material but who wants one day to be making Transporter films, or Fast and Furious films, or whatever.

 

From www.films.list.co.uk

 

However, Sawney – Flesh of Man at least has one thing in its favour, which is a great performance from David Hayman as the demented, evil and relentlessly Bible-quoting head cannibal.  Hayman was also in John Landis’s Burke and Hare a few years ago, so evidently he’s working his way through all of Scotland’s great horror / monster tropes.  Let’s hope someone gives him a role soon in a movie about the Loch Ness Monster.

 

Also striking is the scenery, this time of rural northern England, in the 2012 zombie movie Before Dawn.  In fact, I suspect this is the first zombie movie to use this rugged and beautiful part of Britain as its setting since Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, made all the way back in 1973.   The director and star of Before Dawn is Dominic Brunt, whose day job is playing Paddy the Vet in ITV’s countryside soap opera Emmerdale.

 

Poor old Brunt has been criticised in some quarters for pacing Before Dawn too slowly and not putting enough zombies in it.  But actually, that’s why I liked Before Dawn.  It’s more interested in its central characters, a thirty-something couple whose marriage has fractured and is barely holding together.  They go for an away-from-it-all weekend in a remote holiday cottage and, gradually, discover that a zombie apocalypse is unfolding around them.  I thought Brunt was particularly good as the big, slightly-gormless but well-meaning husband who knows he has f**ked up badly in the past but is now desperate to make amends.  By the time he cottons onto the danger, unfortunately, his wife has received a zombie-bite and is transforming.  For the most part, little is seen of the zombies and the film’s horror comes from its character dynamics.  This is particularly so when the distraught Brunt hears that the zombies might – might – regain some of their humanity if they’re fed human flesh.

 

(c) Mitchell-Brunt Films

 

Before Dawn isn’t brilliant.  The cottage’s phone signal seems to waver on and off according to the demands of the plot at the time, and one of the few zombie-attack sequences that the film does contain is allowed to go on far too long, so that it becomes a bit daft.  However, the overall effect is impressive.  Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that if a zombie apocalypse really happened, the vast majority of people would behave in the way that Brunt does, panicked, uninformed, unable to set emotion aside when dealing with infected loved ones.  There wouldn’t be any of the head-blasting, sawn-off shotgun action typical of most zombie films.  Anyway, I wouldn’t be upset if Dominic Brunt gave up the day job and did more stuff like this.

 

Similarly low-key is the serial-killer movie Tony, which was made in 2009 and so doesn’t really qualify as a ‘recent’ horror film at all – but I thought I’d mention it here.  Tony is clearly inspired by real-life killer Dennis Nielson, an unremarkable, rather boring bloke who did away with some 15 people and kept their bodies in his house because he wanted somebody to talk to.  Come to think of it, someone who talks to corpses must be very boring indeed.

 

Tony is relentlessly depressing – in its depiction of a shabby, rundown London, its depiction of Tony’s victims (aggressive smack-heads, desperate rent-boys, a TV licence man who comes to confiscate Tony’s television and gets throttled with a cable), and its depiction of Tony himself.  Tony is not the superhuman, super-intelligent, Nietzschean serial killer beloved by Hollywood movies.  He’s a hapless, luckless squib of a human being, sporting glasses with lenses like bottle-bottoms and a greasy black smear of hair.  In fact, he’s reminiscent of a serial killer who appeared back at the beginning of British horror-movie history, the one in 1960’s Cover Girl Killer, who was played by the late, great Harry H. Corbett.

 

From www.sunshineplayroom.co.uk

From moundsandcircles.blogspot.com

 

Tony has some icky moments but what’s more unsettling about it is how it manages to elicit some sympathy for its central character.  He’s bullied by the many assholes who inhabit the world around him – he may be the worst predator, but he’s certainly not the only predator on view.  Also, he shows an occasional sliver of humanity, such as when he allows the least obnoxious smackhead to go free.

 

Another reason why I’ll give Tony the thumbs-up is its wistful music, which is supplied by that great 1980s indie band, The The.  (The film’s director, Gerald Johnson, is apparently the brother of The The’s main-man, Matt Johnson.)  Here’s a taste of it:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_O5QESqCaU

 

Stand by for more ‘recent British horror movies’ shortly.