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 inquired of 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