My life as a tape-head

 

From unsplash.com / © Tobias Tullius

 

I was surprised to hear the news last month that the inventor of the audio cassette, Lou Ottens, had passed away at the age of 94.  Surprised because the audio cassette seemed such an elderly piece of technology to me that I’d assumed its inventor had been dead for many years, indeed, many decades already.

 

I used to love cassettes.  They were small, light and portable whilst at the same time durable and not vulnerable to the scratches and occasional breakages that bedevilled my vinyl records.  Though of course when their tape got caught in the tape-heads of a cassette player, having to free and unravel the ensuing tangle was a pain in the neck.  Much of my music collection consists of cassettes and I suspect I must have something in the region of a thousand albums in that format.  But, like most of my worldly possessions, they’ve spent the 21st century occupying boxes in my Dad’s attic in Scotland.

 

Cassettes seemed old-fashioned even in the days before the appearance of the compact disc, a type of technology that itself must seem prehistoric to modern youngsters brought up in a world of Internet streaming.  I remember in 2019 entering a second-hand record shop in Edinburgh and being amazed, and delighted, to find that it still had several shelf-loads of cassettes on sale.  (The shop was the Record Shak on Clerk Street and sadly, due to its owner’s death, it’s closed down since then.  But at least the Record Shak managed to outlive most of the other record shops that once populated south-central Edinburgh, like Avalanche, Coda Music, Ripping Records and Hog’s Head Music, so in its humble, durable way it was like the retailing equivalent of a cassette.)

 

I was such a tape-head that even during the 1990s, when the CD was supposed to have achieved market dominance, I still indulged in that most cassette-ish of pastimes – creating cassette compilations of my favourite music of the moment, which I’d then inflict on my friends.

 

I also made party cassettes.  For much of that decade I lived in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, was something of a party animal and would hold regular shindigs in my apartment.  My home was a typically modest, urban-Japanese one, consisting of two normal-sized rooms plus a little bathroom and toilet, but that didn’t prevent me from piling in the guests.  During one do, I did a count and discovered I’d squeezed 48 people into the place.  I even managed somehow to set aside one room as the ‘dance floor’.  And before each party, for the dance-floor room, I’d compile a few cassettes of songs that I judged likely to get the guests shaking a leg.  How could anyone not shake a leg when, in quick succession, they were subjected to the boisterous likes of the Cramps singing Bend Over I’ll Drive, the Jesus and Mary Chain doing their cover of Guitar Man, Motorhead with Killed by Death, the Reverend Horton Heat with Wiggle Stick, AC/DC with Touch Too Much and the Ramones with I Wanna be Sedated?

 

At the party’s end, if somebody complimented me on the quality of the music, I’d simply give them the party cassettes and tell them to keep them as souvenirs.  By the time of my next hooley, I’d have discovered a new set of tunes and slapped them onto some new cassettes.  Who knows?  Maybe those 1990s party cassettes are still being played at gatherings in Sapporo, where the partygoers are no longer young and wild, but grey and arthritic instead.  Surely they’d be considered priceless antiques today – the cassettes, not the partygoers.

 

Anyway, feeling nostalgic, I thought I would list here the most memorable cassette compilations that other people have given to me over the years.

 

© Factory

 

Untitled compilation – Gareth Smith, 1991

I never imagined that in 2021 I’d still be humming tunes performed by the now-forgotten New Jersey alternative rock band the Smithereens or the equally forgotten 1980s Bath / London combo Eat.  The fact that I am is due to a splendid compilation cassette that my brother put together and sent to me while I was working in Japan. Actually, the reason why I’m humming those tunes today is probably because they weren’t actually written by the Smithereens or Eat.  The Smithereens’ track was a cover of the Who’s song The Seeker, while the Eat one was another cover, of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.

 

As well as featuring those, the cassette contained the epic six-minute club mix of Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays.  No, this wasn’t a cover version of the Leonard Cohen song, but the Mondays’ impeccably shambling dance track that begins with a falsetto voice exclaiming, “Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!” and then proceeds with Shaun Ryder intoning such lyrical gems as, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re here to pull ya!”

 

On the other hand, the cassette contained the hit single Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones, which I thought was quite good and which induced me to buy their new album when I saw it on sale soon afterwards in my local Japanese record shop.  Big mistake.

 

Songs from Brad’s Land – Brad Ambury, 1991

Around the same time, I received a compilation cassette from a Canadian guy called Brad Ambury, who worked on the same programme that I was working on but in a different part of northern Japan.  I think Brad saw it as his mission to convince me that there was more to Canadian music than the then-popular output of Bryan Adams.  He must have despaired when several years later Celine Dion popped up and usurped Bryan as Canada’s number-one international musical superstar.

 

Anyway, he made this cassette a smorgasbord of Canadian indie and alternative-rock bands with quirky names: Jr. Gone Wild, Blue Rodeo, the Northern Pikes, Spirit of the West, the Doughboys and so on.  During the rest of the 1990s, whenever I was introduced to Canadian people, I’d waste no time in impressing them with my encyclopaedic knowledge – well, my shameless name-dropping – of their country’s indie / alt-rock musical scene.  All thanks to that one cassette.

 

Actually, stirred by curiosity 30 years on, I’ve tried Googling Brad and discovered he has a twitter feed that’s headed by the logo for the Edmonton ‘punk-country’ band Jr. Gone Wild.  So it’s good to know he hasn’t succumbed to senile old age and started listening to The Best of Bryan Adams just yet.

 

© Jr. Gone Wild

 

A Kick up the Eighties – Keith Sanderson, 1993

I must have received dozens of cassette compilations from my music-loving Scottish friend Keith Sanderson and this one was my favourite.  It even looked distinctive because, for a sleeve, he packaged it in a piece of flocked, crimson wallpaper.  As its title indicates, A Kick up the Eighties was a nostalgic collection of tunes from the then recently departed 1980s. These included pop hits, new wave and indie classics, Goth anthems and lesser-known tunes that were both ruminative and raucous: the Associates’ Party Fears Two, Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling, Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives, Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood, Aztec Camera’s Down the Dip and Girlschool’s Emergency.  The collection was disparate yet weirdly balanced, and even songs I hadn’t particularly liked before, such as Rush’s Spirit of Radio and UFO’s Only You Can Rock Me, seemed good due to their calibration with the music around them.

 

However, when I played this cassette at parties, I had to make sure I stopped it before it reached the final track on Side A.  For my friend Keith had sneakily inserted there, like a street-credibility-destroying booby trap, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.

 

Japanese and English Guitar Pop – Yoko Koyama, 1994    

By the mid-1990s I was lecturing in a university in Sapporo.  My Japanese students there gradually come to the realisation that, despite being a curmudgeonly git, I had one redeeming quality, which was that I was into music.  So a steady stream of them presented me with cassettes of tunes they’d recorded, which they thought I might be interested in.  I can’t remember who presented me with a recording of the Flower Travellin’ Band, but well done that person.

 

A smart indie-kid in one of my classes called Yoko Koyama gave me a cassette compilation of what she termed ‘modern guitar pop’, i.e. melodic pop-rock stuff with lots of pleasantly jangly guitars.  Apparently, this was a sound that a few Japanese bands of the time, like Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five, were into.  She’d interspersed their tracks with ones by what she described as four ‘English’ practitioners of the same sub-genre.  These were Teenage Fanclub and the BMX Bandits, from Bellshill near Glasgow; Aztec Camera, from East Kilbride in Lanarkshire; and the Trash Can Sinatras, from Irvine in North Ayrshire.

 

© Polystar

 

I expressed my thanks but observed with some bemusement that the four so-called English bands on the collection were actually all from Scotland.  Yoko smiled politely but said nothing.  However, a year later, she wrote a feature about this type of music for our faculty’s English-language students’ newspaper (which I edited) and made a point of talking about ‘Scottish guitar pop’.  So despite my multiple failings as a teacher, I managed at least to teach one fact to one person during the 1990s.

 

Guns N’ Roses bootlegs – the guy who collected my Daily Yomiuri payments, 1996

While living in Sapporo, I subscribed to the English-language newspaper the Daily Yomiuri, which is now the Japan News.  One evening every month, a young guy would arrive at my apartment door with the newspaper’s monthly bill, which I paid in cash.  (Direct debits didn’t seem to be a thing at the time.)  When I opened the door for him one evening, The Spaghetti Incident by Guns N’ Roses happened to be playing on my stereo.  The guy’s face immediately lit up and he exclaimed, “Ah, you like Guns N’ Roses?”  We then had an enthusiastic ten-minute conversation – well, as enthusiastic as my rudimentary Japanese would allow – about the gloriousness of Axl Rose, Slash and the gang.

 

A month later, when the guy came to collect my next Daily Yomiuri payment, I was immensely touched when he presented me with two cassettes, on which he’d recorded two Guns N’ Roses bootleg albums.

 

Okay, strictly speaking, these weren’t compilation cassettes.  But I’m mentioning them here as a testimony to the power of the audio cassette.  They allowed the Japanese guy who collected my newspaper-subscription money and I to bond over a shared love of Guns N’ Roses.

 

Yeah, beat that, Spotify.

 

From pinterest.com

Why I love the Cramps

 

From slugmag.com

 

The American rock band the Cramps, who blazed a sonic trail for three memorable decades from the mid-1970s to the mid-noughties, wore an awful lot of influences on their black-leather sleeves.  Yet somehow they 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 adverse 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.

 

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.

 

Under Ivy and Lux’s control, 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, Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis, 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 was 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.  Incidentally, on the other side of the cassette was the 1988 Sugarcubes album Life’s Too Good.  Wow, those were the days.

 

© Creation

 

But at least by then I’d heard of the Cramps.  Indeed, the band had been credited with inventing their own musical genre, psychobilly.  Their supposed progeny, such raucous, upright-bass-slapping combos as the Meteors, Guano Batz and King Kurt, with their thickly greased quiffs, brothel creepers and copious tattoos, had been rampaging through the sweatier, dingier music venues of 1980s Britain.  The music journalist Dick Porter notes in his 2015 biography of the band Journey to the Centre of the Cramps that the Cramps were certainly responsible for the term ‘psychobilly’.  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 actual musical scene they were meant 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.”

 

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 the stutter or buzz of Poison Ivy’s guitar, and with Lux Interior’s macabre, funny and innuendo-laden lyrics, and after a minute I’ll feel right as rain again.

 

© Restless / Enigma

 

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.

 

One thing the band never received enough praise for was their musicianship.  There’s a perception of the Cramps, popular for example among certain snooty British music critics, as a kitschy, campy and not-to-be-taken-seriously novelty act.  This overlooks the skill, attention to detail and sheer hard graft that went into composing and recording their songs.  Ivy and Lux were extremely knowledgeable about their influences and 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 is testimony to high standards of talent and professionalism behind the scenes.

 

The story of the Cramps ended on a melancholic 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 Dick Porter in 2006, “That’s all the Cramps is – a folie à deux.”

 

© I.R.S

Why I love the Jesus and Mary Chain

 

© Mike Laye

 

The Jesus and Mary Chain are an alternative rock band from the Scottish town of East Kilbride who’ve been in existence for 29 of the last 37 years.  They are essentially the brothers Jim and William Reid singing vocals and playing guitars, with a long and ever-changing cast of drummers and bassists, including Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, filling out the rhythm section.  On at least three days of the week, they’re my favourite band of all time.  (I’d say on the other four days of the week, my favourite all-time band are probably the Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones.)

 

However, it wasn’t until four years after their formation in 1983 that I started listening to them. When they first came to prominence, the media focused not on their music but on their habit of delivering gigs just 20 minutes long, something that the Reid brothers later blamed on not having enough decent songs to play.  Also, they’d perform with their backs to the audience and cloak their sound in squalls of feedback.  This didn’t go down well with the punters and resulted in bottles being thrown and much general disgruntlement.  Not having had a rock-and-roll bogeyman to demonise since the days of the Sex Pistols, the tabloid press happily described these gigs as ‘riots’.

 

A mate of mine went to see the band in Aberdeen in 1985, got the 20-minute, backs-turned, wails-of-feedback routine and then wrote a review for a student newspaper in which he called the gig ‘a load of bollocks’.  And for some time afterwards, I felt reluctant to part with my money for the sake of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

 

It wasn’t until 1987 that I accidentally heard some of their music.  My brother had recorded an album by the Pogues on a cassette tape for me and, to fill some remaining space on the tape, stuck the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Some Candy Talking EP (1986) on it too.  The EP I found surprisingly tuneful, in a lugubrious sort of way.  The following winter, I worked in a ski-resort hotel in Switzerland, where I procured a tape of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s second studio album Darklands (1987) from an alternative music-inclined English girl who was employed in the hotel’s bar.  I liked that enough to track down, soon after, their first studio album Psychocandy (1986) and a compilation album of their B-sides and rarity tracks, the fabulously titled Barbed Wire Kisses (1988).

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

Psychocandy is a combination of abrasive noise and, less expectedly, some wistful, haunted melodising that makes you imagine you’re hearing the ghosts of the Shangri-Las singing through a spirit medium.  Among the songs in the noise category are The Living End, In a Hole, Inside Me and It’s So Hard, while the melodic ones include the opener Just Like Honey, The Hardest Walk, Cut Dead, Sowing Seeds and the aforementioned Some Candy Talking.  Other songs are hybrids that somehow manage to fall into both camps, like Taste the Floor, Never Understand and My Little Underground.

 

Darklands, meanwhile, largely eschews the noise and embraces the melodic but melancholic. Most of its songs fit the mood suggested by its gloomy title but, in spite of themselves, are often exhilarating too.  The standouts for me include the title song and Cherry Came Too, Happy When It Rains and Nine Million Rainy Days, which contains the cheery lines, “As far as I can tell / I’m being dragged from here to hell / All my time in hell was spent with you…” Nine Million Rainy Days, however, veers off in an unexpected direction towards the end when it borrows the famous ‘woo-woo’ backing vocals that grace the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (1969), though here they mutate into ‘woo-woo, woo-woo, woo!’  Evidence, if it didn’t exist already, that the Reid brothers were, for all their modish abrasiveness, happy to ransack the annals of classic rock music for ideas and inspiration.

 

Q magazine, I think, once likened the songs on Darklands to ‘Scottish blues’, though you could also identify the album as a prototype record for the soon-to-be-popular shoegazer movement, but with more drive and focus.  You could even call it an outlier in the already popular goth-rock genre, though without goth’s self-conscious melodrama.  Actually, I suspect if you told Jim and William Reid they were goths, they’d punch you in the face.

 

But it was Barbed Wire Kisses and especially the track Sidewalking that finally made me fall in love with the band. Sidewalking is a massive, swaggering thing that sounds like a bastard child of the Velvet Underground and T. Rex, a combination I found irresistible.  Elsewhere, Kisses reaffirms the band’s love of late 1950s / early 1960s American pop and rock music by offering cover versions of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA and, particularly good, Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love?

 

By the end of the 1980s, I’d started a job in northern Japan.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s latest album, Automatic (1989), in a Tower Records store in the prefectural capital, Sapporo.  Automatic is commonly regarded as the runt in the litter of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s albums – it made heavy use of a drum machine, which offended a lot of people – although I remember it being enthusiastically received at the time and getting into the ‘albums of the year’ lists of publications like the Melody Maker and New Musical Express.  Personally, it’s my favourite of all the band’s records, with that crunchy Velvet Underground-meets-T. Rex swagger to the fore.  Its tracks that were released as singles, Blues from a Gun and Head On, are great.  Head On even had the honour of being covered by the Pixies in their 1991 album Trompe le Monde.  However, for my money, the best thing on the record is the riff-tastic but overlooked song UV Ray.

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

Although the Jesus and Mary Chain had a signature sound and you were never in doubt about whom you were hearing, they were surprisingly varied.  Just as Psychocandy had that dichotomy of discordant noise and yearning soulfulness, so they’d moved from the exquisite cry-into-your-beer moroseness of Darklands to the strutting, sneering panache of Automatic in the space of two years.

 

For me at least, the Jesus and Mary Chain were on a roll and their next album, Honey’s Dead (1992), was another stormer.  Especially memorable is its opening track, Reverence, whose lyrics provocatively declare, “I want to die just like Jesus Christ / I want to die on a bed of spikes… / I want to die just like JFK / I want to die on a sunny day…”.  The breezy Far Out and Gone and the blistering Catchfire are splendid too.

 

Around this time, not only did the band get invited to take part in the 1992 Lollapalooza Tour in the United States alongside the likes of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ministry and Pearl Jam, but they mounted their own scaled-down version of Lollapalooza back in the UK.  This was the Rollercoaster Tour, which they headlined.  I was lucky enough to catch a performance of the Rollercoaster Tour at London’s Brixton Academy.  It featured not only excellent support from American alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and dreamy, swirly shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, but also a chance to sample a new, up-and-coming band called Blur.  I have to say my impression when I saw the youthful Damon Albarn ambling about onstage, cheerfully gormless, 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 Honey’s Dead, the Jesus and Mary Chain played their set as dark silhouettes against a huge blood-red backdrop and were simultaneously glorious, imperious, uncompromising… and a bit terrifying.

 

With hindsight, the early 1990s was when the Jesus and Mary Chain peaked for me and I didn’t enjoy the albums they produced later in the decade as much as I’d enjoyed Automatic and Honey’s Dead.  1994’s Stoned and Dethroned is a comparatively mellow affair, at times almost a Jesus and Mary Chain Unplugged, although it does feature a collaboration with Shane MacGowan, recorded a few years after he’d parted company with the Pogues.  This track is called God Help Me and, given the condition MacGowan was in at the time, it was probably aptly titled.

 

1998’s Munki has a brilliant single, Cracking Up, which yet again shows that the band know what to do when they get their teeth into a memorable guitar riff.  Elsewhere, Virtually Unreal bounces along nicely and I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll is enjoyably caustic, offering such bad-karma lines as “I love the BBC / I love it when they’re pissing on me / And I love MTV / I love it when they’re shitting on me / I hate rock ‘n’ roll / And all these people with nothing to show…’  But there are a few other tracks on the album that go on for too long.

 

© Creation

 

Rather better is the band’s second compilation of B-sides and oddities, 1993’s The Sound of Speed.  Among other things, this features the band having a go at such standards as Smoky Robinson’s My Girl, Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster and Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song.  They also manage a gloriously rumbunctious take on Jerry Reed’s Guitar Man, which was famously covered by Elvis Presley in 1967.  So much did I like the Jesus and Mary Chain’s rendering of Guitar Man, and so unfamiliar was I with Elvis’s oeuvre at the time, that when I subsequently heard the 1967 version the first thought that popped into my head was: “Wow, is that Elvis attempting a Jesus and Mary Chain song?”  And yet another praiseworthy cover on The Sound of Speed is their wonderfully lithe, snaking version of the 13th Floor Elevators’ Reverberation.

 

By the late 1990s the vitriol expressed in the lyrics of I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll had seemingly overpowered the band.  The relationship between Jim and William Reid had often not been easy, especially when they were under pressure onstage or in the studio, and they’d long been known in the British music press as ‘the Brothers Grim’.  Their one-time drummer John Moore once remarked that they’d experienced ‘enough fraternal conflict to make the Gallagher brothers look like princes William and Harry’ and quoted Jim as saying: “It’s like being locked in a cupboard with somebody for 15 years.  If it wasn’t your brother, you could kick him out.”

 

When I saw them in concert again in the summer of 1998, in Edinburgh, it was clear that things weren’t rosy in Jesus and Mary Chain World.  “William, just shut up!” Jim yelled in the front of the audience when his brother started singing a song intro off-key.  In September that year, a bust-up at the House of Blues venue in Los Angeles, wherein Jim was inebriated and William stormed off the stage, resulted in a gig that echoed the chaos at the start of the band’s career by lasting all of 15 minutes.  It was no surprise when, the following year, it was announced that the band had split.

 

I missed the Jesus and Mary Chain during the noughties.  Ironically, during the years when they weren’t around, it seemed you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some new band that’d obviously been influenced by them – for example, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Raveonettes, the xx and even the Scottish indie rock band Glasvegas.  Meanwhile, I felt a pang when I saw the Sofia Coppola-directed movie Lost in Translation (2003) because, unexpectedly, the song accompanying the final scene when Bill Murray bids farewell to Scarlett Johansson was none other than the first track on the first Jesus and Mary Chain album, Just Like Honey.

 

© Artificial Plastic Records

 

Yet somehow Jim and William managed to patch things up in 2007 and they performed at that year’s Coachella festival in California (with Scarlett Johannsen showing up to provide vocals for Just Like Honey) and Meltdown festival in London.  Since then, the Jesus and Mary Chain have done intermittent tours and gigs and overseen new releases of their old material.  But it wasn’t until 2017 that they finally got around to putting out a new album, Damage and Joy.

 

Their seventh studio album starts off powerfully with a clutch of songs that, in the way the Jesus and Mary Chain of old managed so effortlessly, fuse together the sunny harmonies of late-1950s / early-1960s bubble-gum pop music with some 1980s guitar distortion and general bad attitude – the sinewy Amputation, the meditative War on Peace, the irrepressible All Things Must Past.  Thereafter, among the album’s total of 14 songs, there are a few things that could have been excised to create a leaner package.  But there’s still lots of good stuff.

 

The band remain capable of penning lyrics that are amusingly provocative, as demonstrated by the avantgarde Simian Split.  The song boasts, ‘I killed Kurt Cobain / I put the shot right through his brain / And his wife gave me the job / Because I’m a big fat lying slob’.  Let’s hope this song never finds its way onto Courtney Love’s iPhone, or indeed, her lawyer’s iPhone.  Elsewhere I love the uplifting The Two of Us, the bouncy Presidici (Et Chapaquiditch), and Facing Up to the Facts, which channels part of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues (1959) amid its muscular guitar work.

 

Incidentally, Facing Up to the Facts contains the lyrics, ‘I hate my brother and he hates me / That’s the way it’s supposed to be’.  Which suggests that, at long last, the Jesus and Mary Chain have achieved a dark but stable peace.

 

From nativetongue.com.au

They’ve got the biggest balls of them all

 

From twitter.com/acdc

 

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been the calendrical equivalent of a giant reeking pile of horse manure.  However, recently, amid the daily tsunamis of bad news, I saw a headline in the Guardian that performed the now-difficult feat of putting a smile on my face.  The headline was: AC/DC REUNITE, FEATURING THREE FORMER MEMBERS.

 

Yes, AC/DC – the proper AC/DC – are back.

 

After several years of disarray, the band has got back together with as near classic a line-up as is possible in 2020, with that famously cap-wearing and impeccably gravel-voiced Geordie Brian Johnson on vocals, Cliff Williams on bass, Phil Rudd on drums and Angus Young, presumably still in his schoolboy uniform, on lead guitar.  Alas, Angus’s brother Malcolm passed away in 2017 but their nephew Stevie Young has taken his place on lead guitar.  They’ve returned with a new album called Power Up, to be released in November, and a new single, A Shot in the Dark, which is available now and sounds like every song that AC/DC have done in the last half-century.  That’s an assessment that, as any bona fide fan of the band will tell you, is a compliment rather than a criticism.

 

AC/DC and I go back a long time together.  Their 1979 album Highway to Hell was among the first albums I ever bought.  The album starts with the title track and rarely have a set of opening chords 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 single-mindedly determined to use their guitars to blow your arse off.  Which was surely what heavy metal, and for that matter, rock and roll itself, were all about.

 

Around the same time I took it upon myself to throw a party for my school friends at my family’s farmhouse in Peebles, Scotland, one Friday when my parents were away for the evening.  Predictably, most of my guests turned up armed with copious and illegitimately purchased bottles and cans of booze.  They also turned up 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 dissolute and drunken teenage misbehaviour.

 

Incidentally, during the 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 worriedly asked my Dad if he was a secret drinker.

 

From blabbermouth.net

 

Sadly, though with a horrible-seeming inevitability, AC/DC’s original vocalist Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning related to heavy-duty partying in 1980.  Briefly, it looked like I’d discovered the band too late, for Malcolm  and Angus Young, the band’s driving forces, 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 four decades.

 

It helped that the band’s first post-Bon Scott album, 1980’s Back in Black, was a cracker.  It featured 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 in my second-last year at Peebles High School and Hell’s Bells never seemed to be off the turntable of the stereo in the upper-school common room.

 

The nice thing about AC/DC was that they never changed.  No matter what terrible events were happening in the world – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, 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 soon tracked down and listened to their back catalogue  Their 1976 album High Voltage had an opening track called It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll, which 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 had a stonking title track and the naughty music-hall pastiche Big Balls, whose lyrics included such gems as “Some balls are held for charity / And some for fancy dress / 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.  Meanwhile, their 1978 album Powerage was identified by no less a personage than Keith Richards as one of his favourite records ever.

 

There was a lot of love for AC/DC in the world, though you wouldn’t have thought so reading the music press of the time.  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 the musical world, unlike their two favoured musical genres, 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 were fans of the likes of the Smiths, the Style Council and Simple Minds.  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; 1986’s Who Made Who, which was the musical soundtrack to Maximum Overdrive, writer and big AC/DC fan Stephen King’s ill-advised attempt to try his hand at directing a film; and 1988’s Blow Up Your Video.  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 so rousing that, Wikipedia informs me, Atlético Madrid play it in their team coach every time they travel to their opponents’ stadium for an away game.

 

From bravewords.com

 

The band’s star was back in the ascendant too 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 overdue praise.  AC/DC had also proved more influential than anyone had predicted.  Their sound is imprinted on the DNA of acts like the Cult, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Beastie Boys and many more.  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’ plays an important role in the AC/DC lexicon.

 

But the same year as the release of Rock or Bust everything seemed to go pear-shaped for the band.  First of all, they lost Malcolm Young after memory-loss and concentration-loss caused by dementia left him unable to play.  Later that year, the band parted company with 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).  Then in 2016, Brian Johnson departed due to damaged hearing, which he claimed was caused less by his fronting one of the world’s loudest bands than by his indulgence in auto-racing.  And in 2016 too Cliff Williams announced his retirement and played his supposedly final gig with the band.

 

What was left of AC/DC continued performing with Axl Rose, of legendary glam-metal band Guns n’ Roses, doing vocal duties.  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, their albums Appetite for Destruction (1987), Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident (1993) occupy prominent places in my record collection.  It’s just that Rose’s tremulous American voice didn’t sound right singing the AC/DC back catalogue.  Also, it didn’t help that he debuted with AC/DC confined to a wheelchair thanks to a broken foot and looking like a heavy metal version of Doctor Strangelove.  This hardly seemed to bode well for the vitality of this weird new incarnation of the band.

 

Anyway, that’s all academic now because, thankfully, the real AC/DC are ready again to strut the world’s stages.  Well, once this pandemic comes to an end, whenever that will be.  Let’s hope that to the list of ghastly things to which AC/DC and their gloriously unchanging sound are impervious – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, Simon Cowell – we can add the coronavirus too.

 

© Albert Productions

The sound of silence

 

From unsplash.com / © Vienna Reyes

 

Having perused the British media for the past week, I’ve reached the conclusion that the song that best sums up late-August Britain in this coronavirus-stricken year of 2020 is The Sound of Silence, recorded by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in 1964, although not a hit for them until two years later.

 

But it would have to be The Sound of Silence played with the volume turned down.  No sound.  Just silence.

 

The first silencing I’ve read about is one that’s caused the latest stramash in Britain’s seemingly never-ending culture wars.  Previous instalments in these culture wars have seen a statue of a notorious slave trader in Bristol get chucked into the sea and ridiculous long-haired historian Neil Oliver react to the deed by wailing about ‘anarchists and communists’ trying to destroy the British way of life…  Shaven-headed right-wing thugs giving Nazi salutes in London whilst attempting to protect another statue, one  of Winston Churchill, a man revered in Britain for, er, standing up to Nazis…  And a great deal of red-faced spluttering when the BBC, on its UKTV streaming service, temporarily suspended a 1975 episode of Fawlty Towers in which the dotty old Major character uttered some offensive racial epithets.

 

The BBC is also at the centre of the newest storm.  It’s decided to have the patriotic British songs Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia performed at this year’s Last Night of the Proms concert in the Royal Albert Hall without vocalists there to sing the lyrics.  The BBC claims this is to reduce the number of people onstage and allow for social distancing.  It detractors allege it’s because the lyrics have been deemed inappropriate in these overly sensitive, politically correct times.

 

In the clips of Last Night of the Proms concerts that I watched on TV in the past – in the distant past, because even as a teenager I found it a gruesome spectacle and never wanted to look at the thing again – most of the singing was done by the audience.  And the audience was a sea of drunken, Union Jack-waving Hooray Henrys and Hooray Henriettas making a cacophony that was as pleasant to listen to as a burning chicken-shed.  Due to Covid-19, the audience won’t be present this year.  That’s got to be an improvement, whether or not the songs are performed as instrumentals.

 

Predictably, the BBC’s decision to de-vocalise the songs was greeted by howls of outrage from the right-wing shit-sheets that make up much of the British national press, i.e. the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express.  It was also seized upon by Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, after performing a veritable Gordian knot of humiliating U-turns recently, was desperate to direct attention away from his governmental crapness.  Johnson declared that it was time to ‘stop our cringing embarrassment’ about being British.  Actually, at this stage, the best way to stop people feeling embarrassed about being British would be to build a time machine, pop back in time 56 years and persuade Stanley Johnson to wear a condom.

 

Also climbing onto the anti-BBC bandwagon was publicity-seeking hybrid human-donkey mutant Nigel Farage, who promptly tweeted footage of himself singing a lusty rendition of Rule, Britannia at some pro-Brexit rally.  This in turn prompted comedian David Baddiel to remark: “There might be some who feel a little sad about Rule, Britannia, seeing it, now divorced of triumphalist origins, only as a Proms tradition.  Watching this, however, makes it clear how it’s still basically a C*nts’ Anthem.”

 

Well, I wouldn’t be quite as severe as Baddiel in his assessment of Rule, Britannia, though I too have difficulty thinking positively of it and Land of Hope and Glory when I see the likes of Nigel Farage belting them out.  But apart from that, in terms of actual musical quality, I’ve always thought Rule sounded a bit cheesy and Land was a pompous dirge.  I say that as someone who spent his childhood in a fairly Protestant part of Northern Ireland, where the air often reverberated with the sound of people singing patriotically pro-British tunes.  While these tunes were frequently offensive to Roman Catholic ears, they, unlike Rule and Land, at least managed to be catchy.

 

(I remember one good friend from a quarter-century ago, a university lecturer who was a skilful pianist.  His university would sometimes rope him into providing live background music at official receptions.  He confessed to me that during one such event, bored stiff with ‘tinkling the ivories’, he felt a sudden powerful urge to start playing The Sash.  When I pointed out to him that he was a Glaswegian Catholic, and had a cousin who’d once been skipper of the Glasgow Celtic football team, and therefore wasn’t supposed to be a fan of The Sash, he shrugged and said, “Aye…  But at least it stirs the blood.”)

 

© Warner Music Group – XS Music Group

© Victor

 

However, it hasn’t just been Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory that have been silenced lately.  Reading a separate news story, I learned how restauranteurs in Scotland have been complaining about a ban on music on their premises, prompted again by the current Covid-19 pandemic.  The Scottish government implemented the ban on August 14th, afraid that if eateries were full of loud music, people would have to tilt their heads close together and shout and thereby increase the risk of spreading the virus.  The restauranteurs have dismissed this thinking as ‘ridiculous’, ‘nonsense’, ‘a disgrace’ and having ‘no logic’.  One even complained that “We need background music to kill the deathly hush as people feel they have to start whispering when a restaurant is quiet.  Diners want to eat out in a place with atmosphere, not a library.”

 

This set me thinking of the half-dozen restaurants that my partner and I most often go to in Colombo, Sri Lanka, our current city of residence.  I can’t remember hearing music played in three of them.  If it was played, it was at such a low volume as to be unnoticeable.  One restaurant plays music but softly and unobtrusively – I recall Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man (1965) getting an airing there the other week.  The fifth used to play some weird 1960s Euro-lounge / psychedelic / jazz stuff, like what you’d hear on the soundtrack of a Jess Franco movie, but they seem to have stopped that since the venue reopened after Sri Lanka’s two-month Covid-19 curfew.

 

In fact, only one of the six restaurants plays music at a distinctly discernible level and that makes it problematic for us.  Although the staff are lovely, the décor is charming and the food is decent, the music is often naff and intrusive.  Commonly featured on its aural menu from hell are Phil Collins, Robbie Williams, Coldplay, the Corrs and 1970s / 1980s-era Fleetwood Mac.  Come to think of it, there’s only thing I can think of it that’s more horrible than the Corrs and Fleetwood Mac, and that would be the Corrs doing a cover version of a Fleetwood Mac song.  And – oh yes! – the restaurant sometimes plays that puke-inducingly twee version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams that the Corrs did in 1998.

 

So in other words, the only restaurant we have an issue with is the one that plays music at any volume.  And the reason we like to eat in a quiet environment, or in a near-quiet one, is so that we can generate our own noise by indulging in the basic human art of conversation.  We like to communicate while we eat, and I certainly like to communicate without having to shout and risk spraying mouthfuls of grub into my dining companion’s face.  Also, I assume that any half-decent, welcoming restaurant will be one where the customers feel relaxed enough to strike up conversation immediately.  The afore-mentioned ‘deathly hush’ where people feel ‘they have to start whispering’ would suggest a venue that’s snobby and inhospitable.

 

The same news story contained one quote that made sense to me, however.  It came from a spokesman for a chain of pubs who snorted contemptuously, “We don’t go with the crowd so we don’t have music in any of our premises.  Our customers are used to it and like it.  We have shown you don’t need music to run a pub.”  Quite right.  Just let the punters chat to one another and create their own entertainment.

 

Alas, that spokesman represented the JD Wetherspoon chain, which run 75 pubs in Scotland.  It’s also the property of Tim Martin, who’s a well-known Brexit-loving, Faragist nincompoop.  Martin’s the sort of bloke who probably thinks Covid-19 is a leftist-woke conspiracy to stop patriotic folk from properly singing Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope of Glory by forcing them to wear facemasks.

 

Thus, realising that I’ve just agreed with a statement issued by Tim Martin’s outfit, I think I need to have a wee lie-down now.

 

© The Irish Times / Alan Betson

An appointment with Willow’s Song

 

© Silva Screen

 

This is a revision of an entry that first appeared on this blog on – appropriately – May 1st, 2014.  Be warned that it’s packed with spoilers about The Wicker Man (1973).

 

The Scottish-American singer and actress Annie Ross died last month at the age of 89.  Even if she hadn’t been a celebrated jazz chanteuse, she could boast of leading a varied life.  She worked as a child actress in the USA, became a jazz artist in Europe as an adult, became a familiar face on British TV in the late 1970s, and finally re-established herself in the USA and got citizenship there in 2001.  She was both the sister of the well-known Scottish comedian and actor Jimmy Logan (whose performance as Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer I was lucky enough to see at Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre in the mid-1980s) and the one-time lover of a rather different type of comedian, Lenny Bruce.  And she acted in films as wildly assorted as Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972), Richard Lester’s Superman III (1983), Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) and, yes, Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991).

 

She was also tasked with the unusual job of making Britt Ekland sound Scottish in my all-time favourite horror movie, 1973’s The Wicker Man.  Yes, whenever Ekland opens her mouth in the role of Willow Macgregor, the landlord’s daughter at the portentously titled Green Man Hotel on the remote Scottish island of Summer Isle, it’s not actually her Swedish-inflected tones you hear but those of Annie Ross instead.

 

Curiously, despite Ross’s famous singing talent, she didn’t get to voice Ekland during the scene that required her character to break into song.  At that point, supposedly, Ekland was dubbed by another singer, Rachel Verney.  (I’ve heard claims that Annie Ross did perform the song as well, but the weight of evidence seems to be against that.)

 

Anyway, this gives me a chance to talk about the song sung in that scene, Willow’s Song, sometimes known too as How Do.  The luscious Willow Macgregor sings it one night when she’s trying to lure the Green Man’s current guest, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) into her room for some hanky-panky.  Howie, a policeman sent to Summer Isle to investigate the disappearance of a local schoolgirl, is a devout Free Presbyterian and is already unimpressed at finding that everyone on the island is a practising pagan.  His strict Christian principles prevent him from answering Willow’s call.  Just about.

 

© British Lion Films

 

14 years ago, I was working in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, whose small enclave of expatriates, mostly diplomats and aid workers, held a weekly cinema evening.  Noticing that the next such evening fell on October 31st, i.e. Halloween, I dusted down my DVD of The Wicker Man and persuaded Pyongyang’s little cinema society that this would be a good time to watch a classic horror movie.  For most of its running time, the audience seemed pleasantly bemused by the film.  They enjoyed a good chuckle at how the pagan islanders led the stick-up-his-arse Howie on a merry dance around Summer Isle, taunting him with their innuendo-laden folk songs and their unconventional sense of public decency (e.g. organising mass couplings in the local graveyard, dancing naked through flames in the centre of stone circles).  But the people sitting closest to me kept leaning over and whispering, “Isn’t this supposed to be a horror film?”

 

Then the film’s final ten minutes arrived.  Howie discovers what the islanders have planned for him at the climax of their May Day celebrations – it involves ‘an appointment with the wicker man’ – and the room fell silent.  The silence continued for several minutes after the film ended, broken only by the voice of a Scotswoman who worked at the British Embassy.  She kept wailing to everyone around her, “Scotland isn’t really like that!  Scotland isn’t really like that!”

 

Later, a Dutch lady whose husband headed the Red Cross and Crescent’s operations in Pyongyang came over to me with big smile on her face.  “I really liked that,” she said.  “But you know, most of the film felt like a musical to me.”

 

And indeed, one reason why The Wicker Man is so special to me is its music.  Willow’s Song is the centrepiece of its soundtrack but the film is choc-a-bloc with gorgeous and haunting folk tunes.  Meanwhile, the lack of music is a reason why the 2006 American remake directed by Neil Labute and starring Nicholas Cage sucks, although, to be honest, there are many reasons why it sucks.

 

The man responsible for the original Wicker Man’s music was New Yorker Paul Giovanni, who assembled a number of songs, some self-composed, some traditional folk songs, and performed them with the folk-rock band Magnet.  Clearly a renaissance man, Giovanni was also a playwright and actor during his career.  Tragically, in 1990, he died from pneumonia, a complication caused by an HIV/AIDS infection.

 

© British Lion Films

 

As well as showcasing the film’s most famous song, the sequence in which Willow Macgregor sings has some notoriety because it shows her performing a nude dance as well.  (Having withstood Willow’s saucy enticements, Howie discovers later that the episode was arranged by the crafty pagan islanders to determine whether or not he’s a virgin and hence suitable sacrificial material.)  This is probably Britt Ekland’s greatest cinematic moment.  Mind you, her only other well-known major role is in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), so there isn’t much competition.

 

Come to think of it, though, Ekland was pregnant during the shooting of The Wicker Man, so it isn’t her naked body that we see cavorting during the scene.  The filmmakers hired a stripper to act as her ‘body double’ and, in at least one interview with her I’ve read, Ekland has remarked cattily about the size of the double’s bum.  So with Rachel Verney (or possibly Annie Ross) doing her singing, and a stripper doing her dancing, Britt’s greatest cinematic moment doesn’t actually have much Britt in it.

 

It was ignored at the time of its release but, over the years, the prestige of The Wicker Man has grown.  And as I’ve said, much of its mystique is due to its music.  Willow’s Song in particular has received much attention and a number of artists have had a go at covering it.  The most famous version is probably that by cinematically inspired electronica band the Sneaker Pimps.  It appears on their acclaimed 1996 album Becoming X, for which they recruited female singer Kelli Dayton (now Kelli Ali) to do vocals.  Afterwards, the band ungentlemanly gave Dayton the shove, claiming ‘her voice was no longer considered suitable for their new music’.  And has anyone heard anything of the Sneaker Pimps since then?  No.  Thought not.  Incidentally, if you have the right edition of Becoming X you’ll find as a bonus track a version of Gently Johnny, the second-best song that Paul Giovanni / Magnet recorded for The Wicker Man.  The scenes with Gently Johnny were chopped out of the film’s original print but years later were restored to the Director’s Cut of it.

 

The Sneaker Pimps’ version is still recognisably the movie’s Willow’s Song, although it has a lush, synthesised sheen.  Filmmaker Eli Roth liked their take on it so much that he incorporated it into the soundtrack of his notorious 2006 ‘torture porn’ epic Hostel – the Wicker Man reference signifying that Something Bad is going to happen to Roth’s own hapless protagonists.  I don’t find Hostel as objectionable as other people do, but nonetheless I feel that the delicate, pleading tone of Willow’s Song is incongruous in a movie that’s basically about dumb American backpackers getting tortured to death.  Interestingly, both The Wicker Man and Hostel go against the philosophy of conventional, conservative horror movies, like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1980), which holds that only characters who hang onto their virginity escape being victims, while promiscuous characters die horribly.  In The Wicker Man, it’s the only adult virgin on the island who goes up in smoke at the end, while in Hostel, it’s the randiest backpacker who survives the carnage.

 

From genius.com

 

Before the Sneaker Pimps’ version, in 1991, indie band the Mock Turtles did a take on Willow’s Song – I haven’t been able to find an online recording of it to link to – while a dozen years later soulful British rock band the Doves attempted it too.  Both versions are distinctive thanks to the fact that a man, not a woman, does the singing.  The song was also covered in 2006 by Scottish folk singer Isobel Campbell (best known for her collaborations with Mark Lanegan), who unsurprisingly took a more traditional, folky approach to it, and in 2007 by indie-dance-hip-hop group the Go! Team.

 

Definitely worth mentioning is a version of Willow’s Song by the eerie, theremin-loving combo Spacedog, who decided to go for it and deconstructed  it.  They mixed in a sample from another classic British horror film, the ‘power of the will’ monologue delivered by actor Charles Gray while he played the villain in 1968’s The Devil Rides Out, and the results are impressively phantasmagorical.

 

Willow’s Song has a Wikipedia entry that lists a dozen other versions, which isn’t bad for a song that accompanies a scene in which a woman tries to seduce an older, unprepossessing man but is rebuffed, and in a film that baffled its studio, got chopped to pieces before its release and was, initially, financially unsuccessful and critically shunned.  Perhaps it’s the strange juxtaposition of elements that makes the song memorable.  Its sound is gorgeously ethereal and delicate but, when you listen to the lyrics, you realise it’s pretty bawdy too.  Willow promises Howie “a stroke as gentle as a feather,” and later boasts, “How a maid can milk a bull!  And every stroke a bucketful.”

 

Come to think of it, the contrasts in the song are similar to the contrasts in The Wicker Man itself, a film packed with humour, music and cheerful lewdness but ending with a horrific act of cruelty – contrasts that have ensured the movie lives on in Britain’s cinematic consciousness.

 

© British Lion Films

Exit Q

 

© Bauer Media Group / Q Magazine

 

This week saw the publication of the final issue of Q, the British monthly music magazine that’d been on the go since 1986.  You could argue that it’d been as much a victim of Covid-19 as, say, Terence McNally, John Prine or Tim Brooke-Taylor.  In recent years Q had struggled financially and the lockdown in Britain caused by the virus and consequent lack of sales dealt the killer blow.  Its editor since 2017, Ted Kessler, reflected in its last issue, “We’d been a lean operation for all of my tenure, employing a variety of ways to keep our head above water in an extremely challenging print market.  Covid-19 wiped all that out.”

 

That’s a shame because for a decade-and-a-half, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Q was a fixture in my life.  Buying it every month was both an ingrained habit and something I looked forward to.

 

It was launched in the mid-1980s by David Hepworth and Mark Ellen – the latter’s claims to fame include playing bass for a short time in the 1970s Oxford University band the Ugly Rumours, which had one Tony Blair as its singer.  You mightn’t have expected Hepworth and Ellen to start up something like Q, aimed at older music fans, because previously they’d edited the shiny, teen-pop weekly Smash Hits.  However, they’d also spent the 1980s hosting the BBC’s long-running highbrow rock-music show The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-88) and on July 13th, 1985, helped to present the BBC’s coverage of the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium.  Indeed, it was in response to something Hepworth said during the broadcast that Bob Geldof made his famous “F*ck the address!” outburst on live TV.

 

Hepworth and Ellen angled Q towards an older readership because they realised that pop and rock music were no longer just a young person’s game.  By the mid-1980s, folk who’d spent their teen years listening to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like were well into their forties and those who’d been old enough to enjoy the soundtrack of the Summer of Love were pushing middle-age.  Furthermore, a new innovation, the compact disc, was causing many older records to be reissued in a new format and older people were spending money on older music again – buying on CD what they already owned on vinyl, a technology that suddenly seemed obsolete.  Unsurprisingly, the ‘reissues’ review section in Q was almost as long as its ‘new releases’ review one.

 

At the same time, the existing British music press seemingly offered nothing to anyone who was older than their mid-twenties.  The teenybop magazines, pursuing an audience interested only in New Romantic bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham – a movement I have to say I found unspeakable, as well as unlistenable – certainly didn’t, and the ‘serious’ music weeklies like the New Musical Express and the Melody Maker treated anything recorded before the advent of punk rock in the mid-1970s as the music of boring old farts.

 

No doubt reading Q in the late 1980s marked me out as a boring old fart too (I recall the NME once describing Q as a ‘living death of a magazine’), but I preferred its more measured, less partisan and less pretentious style and its willingness to cover with an open mind a range of musical genres from a range of eras to the attitude of the highbrow weeklies.  The NME particularly got up my nose, its scribes broadcasting their musical preferences (and personal politics) in such an annoying, self-conscious, stuck-up and patronising way that I sometimes wondered if they were all clones that’d been grown from the cells of Rik Mayall’s character in the TV sitcom The Young Ones (1982-84).  I actually enjoyed much of the music that the NME championed, like punk, new wave and indie, but my two favourite musical genres at the time were heavy metal and goth music, both of which the NME loathed and ridiculed, dismissing their fans as gormless morons.  So yes, by 1986, I was ready for Q.

 

That’s not to say Q was toothless.  Some of the most scathing pieces of musical journalism I’ve read appeared in its pages, though they were effective because the writer simply recorded was seen and heard and allowed the ‘stars’ in question to talk and string themselves up with their own words.  I’m thinking of an article about an American tour attempted by late 1980s teen heartthrobs Bros, in which the brothers comprising the band, Matt and Luke Goss, came across as delusional and out-of-their-depth plonkers.  Or a piece about Simply Red doing a concert in Cuba, in which the Q journalist had to deal with the mood-swings of a megalomaniacal, self-pitying and generally bloody awful Mick Hucknall.  Or an encounter with the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, in which Corgan’s behaviour was such that the interview’s strapline was Marvel at the horribleness of Billy Corgan!

 

This ‘give-them-enough-rope’ approach, along with a strong dose of sarcasm, was evident in what for me was Q’s best regular feature, Who the hell does… think he / she is?, which ran until the late 1990s and was often but not always written by the late Tom Hibbert.  This involved a unflattering interview with one of the ‘characters’ who were fixtures of British popular culture at the time – prominent in British TV, radio, comedy, sport, music, publishing, journalism or politics, but not showing much evidence of the talent that, in a rational world, would have secured them that prominence.  The rogue’s gallery getting the Who the hell… treatment included Jeffrey Archer, Bananarama, Simon Bates, Jeremy Beadle, Gary Bushell, Barbara Cartland, Jeremy Clarkson, Edwina Currie, Jim Davidson, Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, Samantha Fox, Hale and Pace, Neil and Christine Hamilton, Benny Hill, David Icke, Bernard Manning, David Mellor, Michael Winner and not one, but two Starrs, Freddie and Ringo.

 

The interviews with those last two people were particularly memorable.  An unhinged Freddie Starr ended up raving, “Jesus Christ tried to please everyone.  And look what happened to him.  Am I right?  Am I right?”  Whereas Ringo Starr, taking umbrage that in 1992 Hibbert still wanted to talk about the Beatles, raged: “That was 30 years ago, man.  I’m still making records and you can hear that I’m a great musician on the new record, Time Takes Time, if you can ever be bothered to mention it.  This is an actual bloody legend in front of you.”.

 

And it’s fascinating, if extremely disturbing, to note how many of the Who the hell… interviewees were later revealed as paedophiles and  sexual abusers: Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris and, worst of all, Jimmy Savile.   Of Savile, Hibbert wrote: “People are loath to speak ill of Sir James.  The man is a saint, millions raised for charity; he is the kiddies’ friend, ever on the telly placing a Jim’ll Fix It gong around the neck of some abashed youngster who’s just been a hovercraft pilot for a day.  It is churlish, cynical beyond belief, to suggest there might be something untoward about the benevolent one.  But isn’t there, perhaps, some oddness afoot.  You hear tales, entirely uncorroborated, of course, whispered in sniggers at dinner parties…”  To which Savile retorted that there were no skeletons in his closet because “I got knighted and that proves it, doesn’t it?”  The wizened old monster then started bragging about his promiscuity with the ladies:  “You can’t be in a disco with 600 birds in Aberdeen and stopping overnight and faithful to one f*ck in Leeds…”

 

Incidentally, an interview Hibbert did with Savile’s good friend Margaret Thatcher also appeared in Who the hell…  Asking her what her favourite sort of pop music was, she professed to liking How Much is that Doggie in the Window?

 

© Paul Rider

 

Q was lucky in its timing, for the anodyne, superficial music that dominated the charts during the early and mid-1980s was later, partly at least, dislodged by Madchester and grunge.  And then the Britpop phenomenon hit the country in the mid-1990s.  In other words, music got rockier again, and with bands around like the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Oasis and Blur, Q had proper rock stars, displaying proper rock star attitudes, as material for entertaining articles and interviews.  During the 1990s, the magazine also established the yearly Q Awards Ceremony, which became famous for the raucousness and rudeness of certain invitees.  For example, John Lydon heckled Phil Jupitus and Johnny Vegas as ‘Teletubbies’, and Liam Gallagher called Chris Martin of Coldplay a ‘plant-pot’ – quite right too.

 

I spent a good part of the 1990s living in the Japanese city of Sapporo, and between 1993 and 1998 I bought every issue of Q from my local branch of Tower Records.  Just before I left Sapporo, I donated my collection of back issues to my mate, Steve Burrow.  I hope he’s still got them, as they would be worth a fortune today.  A little later, I went to Ethiopia and worked there for the Voluntary Service Overseas organisation, and my brother in Scotland was kind enough every month to post me the latest copy of Q after he’d finished reading it.  I think those Q back issues, from 1999 to 2001, ended up sitting on the shelves of the volunteers’ library in the central VSO Office in Addis Ababa.  Who knows?  Maybe they’re still there now.

 

But I lost interest in Q in the early noughties, partly because every issue seemed to indulge in that most pointlessly bloke-ish of things, compiling lists: ‘The 100 best albums of all time’, ‘the 100 best gigs of all time’, ‘the 100 best drummers of all time’, and so on and so forth.  I know I’m guilty of putting the occasional list on this blog, but at least I don’t charge people money to read them.

 

In truth, Q was running out of interesting things to write about.  By now the popular music scene had become a lot duller, thanks in part to the rise of identikit pop stars spawned by TV reality shows like Pop Idol (2001-2003), The X-Factor (2004-present) and The Voice (2010-present).  These non-entities were products of what I like to think of as ‘the Simon Cowell conveyor belt of karaoke’.

 

That’s not to say that there wasn’t good music still around, but people were accessing it on the Internet and making the discovery and enjoyment of that music a much more disparate and individual experience.  The days when large numbers of people suddenly hooked onto the same musical craze, which the old-style music magazines would then cover and capitalise on by selling loads of copies, were dead and gone.  The Internet too was where people were increasingly turning to for information about music.  Indeed, it was ironic that Q, a magazine partly created by new technology, the CD, was scuppered by new technology too.

 

That’s said, I’ve heard good things about Q under the editorship of Ted Kessler during the past three years, and I wish I’d dipped into it again while it was still there.  But it’s too late now.

 

That’s not to say, of course, that good writing about music doesn’t exist anymore.  It does, but you’re more likely to find it online than on the (ever-thinning) magazine racks of your local newsagent.  That’s why I recommend you click onto – and if you like it, donate to – the Quietus.

 

© Bauer Media Group / Q Magazine

Morricone no more

 

© enniomorricone.org

 

The death of legendary film composer Ennio Morricone a fortnight ago shouldn’t have been a surprise since he was at the big age of 91.  But he’d shown such a cussed approach to life and art, still composing music, going on world tours and quarrelling with young whippersnappers like Quentin Tarantino while he was in his ninth decade, that you assumed he was going to continue living and composing forever.  Anyway, a heavy workload earlier this month prevented me from penning a tribute to the great man at the time of his passing.  Here’s my belated tribute now.

 

Ennio Morricone was the first film composer I knew.  I recognised his work well before I recognised that of John Barry, Bernard Hermann, Leonard Bernstein or Henry Mancini and even before the blockbuster themes of Jaws (1976) and Star Wars (1977) acquainted me with the name of John Williams.  As a boy I was daft about western movies and as soon as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns started showing up on TV I realised that Morricone’s exhilarating music, soaring and swooping along the soundtracks with twangy acoustic guitars, electric guitars, whistles, chimes, bells, flutes and aah-ing choirs, was as much a character of the films as Clint Eastwood’s cigar-smoking Man with No Name.  Remove Morricone’s music and they wouldn’t be the same.  There’d be a gaping Clint-sized hole in them.

 

Morricone’s music for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the film that put him, Leone, Eastwood and spaghetti westerns on the map, is great but I think his theme for the sequel For a Few Dollars More (1965), with added Jew’s harp and ocarina, is greater still.  Maybe I’m biased since the film is my favourite of Leone’s Dollars trilogy.  It has Eastwood, the Man with No Name, team up with the splendid Lee Van Cleef, the Man in Black, and take on Gian Maria Volonté as evil scumbag bandit El Indio.  The climax sees Van Cleef facing up to Volonté in a duel whereby the participants can only draw their guns on the final chime of a musical pocket watch, which had belonged to Van Cleef’s murdered sister.  It’s absolutely epic, thanks largely to Morricone’s music, which climbs majestically and drowns out the plaintive tones of the pocket watch, then plunges and dies away again a few palm-sweating seconds before the watch stops and the shooting starts.

 

© Produzioni Europee Associati / United Artists

 

The third and final movie of the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), confused me when I saw it as a kid because although Lee Van Cleef starred in it alongside Eastwood again, this time he played a different character from the one in For a Few Dollars More and was as evil as Volonté had been in the previous film.  I assumed he was the same guy and couldn’t figure out why he’d suddenly become so bad.  Morricone’s theme here is perhaps his most famous work – I still hear blokes in the pub, after a few pints too many, going “Na-Na-Na-Na-Naaah….  NA-NA-NAAAH!” for no good reason.  But it’s perhaps the accompaniment he provides for the Ecstasy of Gold sequence, in which an increasingly delirious Eli Wallach spends four minutes running around a cemetery while Leone’s camerawork becomes correspondingly frenzied, that’s the film’s musical highlight.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Of course, we hadn’t heard the last of Morricone as far as Leone’s westerns were concerned, because in 1968 he contributed to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie that regularly gets mentioned in ‘best film of all time’ lists.  (It’s certainly in my top three.)  Morricone’s magnificent score ticks all the boxes.  At times, it does the customary soaring and swooping.  At others, it’s playful and jaunty.  And at other times, it’s marked by a haunting and pained-sounding harmonica.  Like Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè and the musical pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More, we discover the tragic significance of that harmonica at the end when hero Charles Bronson has a showdown with villain Henry Fonda.  Ironically, the film’s most breath-taking sequence, the lengthy opening where three gunmen played by Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock await, with murderous intent, the arrival of Bronson at a remote, rickety train station, unscrolls without Morricone’s music (and indeed, without any dialogue) until nearly ten minutes in when that melancholy harmonica strikes up.

 

Morricone toiled away on many other Italian, and occasionally American, westerns and his CV surely makes him one of the great figures in the western genre.  His work appears in Duccio Tessari’s The Return of Ringo (1965), Franco Giraldi’s Seven Guns for the MacGregors (1966), Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red (1966), Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966), Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967), Don Taylor and Italo Zingarelli’s The 5-Man Army (1969) and Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970).  He also contributed to a few westerns like Navajo Joe (1966),  The Hellbenders (1967), The Mercenary (1968) and The Great Silence (1968) that were directed by another Sergio, Sergio Corbucci, who was honoured in Quentin Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) when Al Pacino described him as “the second best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world!”  Meanwhile, Morricone was reunited with the first best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world with Leone’s late-period western Duck You Sucker (1971), a movie that I like but don’t consider in the same league as Leone’s earlier efforts.  (James Coburn’s Irish accent doesn’t help.)

 

By the early 1970s Leone had shifted from spaghetti westerns to another staple of traditional Italian cinema, the giallo – the horror-thriller hybrid wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (whose identity is revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most stylish, glamorous, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.

 

Morricone’s giallo music is frequently mannered, genteel and dreamy, at odds with the bloody events happening onscreen but matching the well-upholstered lifestyles of the doomed protagonists.  He contributed to Elio Petri’s supernaturally tinged A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Paolo Cavara’s slick but dodgy Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), Aldo Ladi’s rather brilliant Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), Massimo Dallamano’s fairly reprehensible What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and Umberto Lenzi’s lovably barmy Spasmo (1974).   He also did the music for Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), but I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t provide it with suitable adjectives.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Universal

 

He also worked on three movies directed by the man who’s arguably the maestro of the giallo, Dario Argento: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).  He didn’t, however, supply the music for Argento’s giallo masterpiece Deep Red (1976).  That role went to the German prog-rock band Goblin and I have to say, with apologies to Morricone, that I think their baroque, intense Deep Red score just about pips his work as the best giallo music of all time.

 

By then, of course, Hollywood had discovered Morricone and his scores for such prestigious productions as Terence Mallick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Rolande Jaffé’s The Mission (1986) won him international acclaim.  A digression here – I remember reading an interview with Will Carling, the nice but dull skipper of the England rugby team in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Carling told the evidently bored interviewer that before games, to settle his nerves, he listened to ‘The Mission’.  The interviewer thought Carling was talking about the 1980s British Goth band the Mission and, believing he’d discovered something interesting about Carling at last, that he was a Goth, asked him if he liked Gene Loves Jezebel too.  “No,” retorted a perplexed Carling, “The film The Mission.  The music from The Mission!”

 

Morricone also enjoyed a final reunion with his old comrade Sergio Leone, creating a majestic but wistful score for Leone’s Hollywood gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

 

Leone didn’t just provide the music for good films.  He also plied his trade with many bad ones and often the music coming out of the cinema speakers and what was happening on the screen seemed to belong to two different aesthetic universes.  I’m thinking of Reagan’s Theme, the haunting guitar-and-choir piece he composed for John Boorman’s much-derided Exorcist II: The Heretic (1978), or the soulful, religious sounding theme he provided for Michael Anderson’s Orca: The Killer Whale (1977), totally at variance with the ridiculous plot that has Richard Harris going Captain Ahab against a vengeful cetacean.

 

© Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

Among Leone’s Hollywood scores, I particularly admire the one he did for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing (1982).  At the time, disdainful mainstream critics (who also hated the film generally) dismissed his work as being like one of Carpenter’s own, pulsating synthesiser scores ‘slowed down’ or ‘played at the wrong speed.’  Heard today, its doomy sound encapsulates the film’s claustrophobic and literally under-the-skin horror, whilst reminding you that, yes, this is a John Carpenter film but it’s a special John Carpenter film.  I also like his subtle, creepy score for Mike Nichol’s underrated Wolf (1994), wherein a tired, middle-aged and downtrodden publisher (Jack Nicholson) gets bitten by a werewolf and discovers that his newly acquired lupine powers actually serve him well in the aggressive, cutthroat world of the 1990s New York publishing industry.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

One of Morricone’s last major commissions was for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).  The two men had previously fallen out over Morricone’s contribution, eventually non-contribution, to Tarantino’s 2012 western Django Unchained, but Morricone was back on board for this and contributed an urgent and ominous main theme.  Appropriately, seeing as The Hateful Eight and The Thing feature the same star (Kurt Russell) and a similar scenario (a stranded group trying to identify an enemy hiding among them), Morricone also donated some pieces he’d created for but hadn’t used in the 1982 John Carpenter film.  And as extra icing on the cake, Reagan’s Theme from Exorcist II: The Heretic was borrowed to accompany a brief, arty sequence of coach-horses making their way through the snow.  So it was gratifying that near his life’s end Morricone got an opportunity to show his mastery again of the genre that established his name, the western.

 

From open.spotify.com