Music à la Mode

 

From Facebook / © Depeche Mode

 

Well, bugger.  Just as I’m starting to get into Depeche Mode again, one of the sods goes and dies on us.

 

I’m referring to Andy Fletcher, founding member of Depeche Mode, bass, keyboard and synth-player, and from all accounts the bloke who dealt with the business, financial and legal matters that his two bandmates (Dave Gahan and Martin Gore) found too boring to deal with.  Fletcher passed away on May 26th.  Considering the industrial amounts of drugs and booze that Gahan and Gore have put away over the years, he surely wasn’t the band-member most people would have bet money on to pop their clogs first.

 

Not that Fletcher escaped all the excesses of Depeche Mode, which were at their most destructive in the early-to-mid-1990s, around the time of their notorious 1993 Devotional and 1994 Exotic tours.  While Gahan suffered cracked ribs and internal haemorrhaging from a botched stage-dive, became convinced he was a vampire and tried to bite a music journalist, had a drug-induced heart attack, attempted suicide and spent a few minutes technically dead after a 1996 heroin / cocaine speedball overdose, and while Gore experienced seizures that were the culmination of long-term alcohol and substance abuse, and while one-time member Alan Wilder quit due to what he euphemistically described as relations in the band being ‘seriously strained, increasingly frustrating and, ultimately, in certain situations, intolerable’, Fletcher had to temporarily leave Depeche Mode and check into hospital suffering from severe anxiety issues.

 

For me, one fact sums up the kamikaze state of Depeche Mode at the time.  Their support band during the North American leg of their 1994 tour was so horrified by what they saw that they recorded their next album in conditions of strict sobriety.  The support band was none other than the druggy, leather-trousered, hard-living, psychedelia-loving, Rolling Stones-worshipping Primal Scream.  Yes, Primal Scream!  As journalist Phil Sutcliffe noted in Q magazine, “Behold, then, Depeche Mode: the band who frightened Primal Scream into temperance.”

 

That Depeche Mode in the 1990s mutated into such out-and-out rock monsters came as a shock to me.  When they started at the beginning of the 1980s, I thought they were insufferable, synth-twiddling wimps.  Their maddeningly jaunty hit singles, like New Life and Just Can’t Get Enough (both 1981), made them popular with the sort of brainless pubescents whose purchasing power had recently clogged up the pop-charts with the unspeakable likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet (and had recently turned me, at the age of 17, into the musical equivalent of a grumpy old man: “Kids today!  They call this shit music?  Gah!”)  And even if Depeche Mode hadn’t won the adoration of those dopey New Romantic fans, and were judged purely by the standards of being an early 1980s synth-pop act, they seemed much less interesting than other acts of that type, like Soft Cell and the Human League.

 

It was funny, though, that Just Can’t Get Enough eventually became a football anthem. One set of supporters would sing it with the words slightly amended to insult an opposing set of supporters: “You just can’t get it up!  You just can’t get it up!”

 

© Mute

 

However, in the early 1990s – by which time I was living in Japan – I noticed something odd.   People whom I liked and whose musical tastes I respected, such as a friend from New York called Mary Beth Maslowski, and another friend, a Sapporo-ite called Satomi Munakata, had started arguing with me that Depeche Mode were good.  “Impossible,” I’d retort.  “They’re wimps!  Haven’t you heard Just Can’t Get Enough or  New Life?  What piffle!”  In fact, Satomi felt so strongly about the matter that she presented me with five of their albums recorded on cassette tapes and insisted that I listen to them.  Setting my prejudices aside, I slotted the things into the tape-deck of my stereo…  And, I had to admit, some of the stuff on them was actually really decent.  This was especially true of the more recent Depeche Mode albums, like Violator (1990) and Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993).

 

While it’s customary for bands to begin strong, full of youthful energy, imagination and enthusiasm, and then, having fired all their creative bolts during their first few albums, to become shite, the opposite had happened with Depeche Mode.  They’d begun shite but gradually become good.  Their annoyingly dinky sound of the early 1980s had gradually given way to a darker, crunchier one that had the relentlessness of industrial music but was also leavened with some melodies.  Goths, I noted, had become especially partial to the band.

 

After I’d decided I liked them, I bought each new Depeche Mode album that came out: Ultra (1997), Exciter (2001), Playing the Angel (2005), Sounds of the Universe (2009), Delta Machine (2013) and Spirit (2017).  These were sometimes uneven, but all had moments of quality.  Playing the Angel, full of groovy tunes like A Pain that I’m Used to, John the Revelator, Suffer Well and The Sinner in Me, is a particular favourite of mine, though nothing quite beats the mighty Barrel of a Gun on Ultra.

 

That said, I hadn’t listened to the band so much in recent years.  However, during the past month, alarmed at the state of my health – about as good as that of the average Depeche Mode member between 1993 and 1996 – I decided to get back into the habit of going to a gym.  And in the gym, I decided to spend most of my time running on the treadmill.  I used to be a keen jogger, but had pretty much given up because running on pavements and tarmacked roads and footpaths was subjecting my ageing knees and ankles to too much wear and tear.  Running on a treadmill, I thought, would be less damaging.  And to stop myself getting bored on the treadmill, I found myself listening to loads of Depeche Mode on my iPod.  (Yes, my iPod.  I told you I was ageing.)

 

I’ve especially listened to Depeche Mode: Remixes 81-04.  A bunch of Depeche Mode classics remixed by DJs, producers and bands like François Kervorkian, William Orbit, DJ Shadow, Goldfrapp, Underworld and the Beatmasters, where things go (electronically) ‘Thud!’ and ‘Thump!’ and ‘Crash!’ with machine-like regularity, are the perfect soundtrack when you’re trying to get your body into the rhythm of running again.

 

But then, suddenly, Andy Fletcher died.  Which sucks.

 

© Mute

 

Meanwhile last month, nine days before Fletcher passed away, another maestro of electronic music, whom I’d originally considered to be a bit crap but later changed my mind about, died too.  I’m talking about Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, aka Vangelis.  For many years, I’d been sceptical about Vangelis’s musical talents because (a) he’d been half of the duo Jon & Vangelis (the other half being Jon Anderson), whose ultra-limp hit single I’ll Find My Home cleared dance floors the length and breadth of Britain in 1982; and (b) he provided the ponderous music for the ponderous 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.  The history of the British film industry is littered with boringly worthy costume dramas that I hate, but Chariots of Fire is probably the boringly worthy costume drama that I hate most.  Also, is it just me, or does the Chariots of Fire theme not sound like the Alexander Brothers’ These are my Mountains played at the wrong speed?

 

And yet…  Vangelis’s soundtrack album for Ridley Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece Blade Runner (1982) is a work of genius.  I didn’t appreciate the music so much when I originally saw the film, because I was overwhelmed by its cyberpunk visuals.  But a few years later, when I bought the soundtrack album, I realised how good it was.  Aurally, it perfectly captures Blade Runner’s aesthetic of toweringly futuristic skyscrapers, street-level mazes of Asian-style food counters and market stalls, high-tech corporations, low-fi 1940s-esque film noir sleuthing, neon, rain, grime and smoke.

 

Tracks like Tales of the Future, which featured the singer Demis Roussos, Vangelis’s fellow Greek and former colleague in the late 1960s / early 1970s prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child, were spine-tingling.  (At the time poor Demis was something of a joke in Britain, thanks to his high-pitched warbling being featured in Mike Leigh’s hilarious satire on social class and social mobility, 1977’s Abigail’s Party).  I now regard the urgent end-credits theme as one of the most rousing pieces of film-music ever.  And then, when it segues into the late, great Rutger Hauer doing his ‘Tears in Rain’ monologue…  Well, what can you say?

 

Vangelis certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice to create the musical accompaniment to Blade Runner.  But as things turned out, I’m glad he got the gig.

 

© East West / Atlantic

Cinematic heroes 1: Jon Finch

 

© Goodtimes Enterprises / Anglo-EMI Film Distributors

 

The film and TV actor Jon Finch died seven-and-a-half years ago.  At the time of his passing, late on in 2012, he hadn’t worked for several years and had lived quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death had apparently gone undiscovered for some time.  Word of his funeral wasn’t announced until January 2013.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media were intermittent and patchy.  I decided to pen a few words of tribute on this blog and the resulting post seemed to rank high on Google searches about Finch – as I’d said, obituaries for him were intermittent and patchy.  Gratifyingly, a number of people who’d known Finch over the years came across my post and left comments on it.  In fact it was one of this blog’s most commented-on entries.  (And I’m kicking myself that, because this blog had to recently get a post-hacking reboot, those comments from Finch’s friends have now been lost.)

 

Anyway, I thought I’d revisit, rewrite and update what I originally wrote about Finch in 2013 and repost it.  Annoyingly, though, I still haven’t managed to see 1973’s The Final Programme

 

Jon Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.

 

He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth, released in 1971, and suddenly Finch’s career trajectory had become exponentially steep.

 

Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976).  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is gruelling too.

 

Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with him than we do with Finch.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for international fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) which, tantalisingly, would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.

 

In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany when he heard of his passing: “I was very fond of Jon and was sorry we lost touch…  He was genuinely modest.”

 

Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.

 

From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series of adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for their staginess and the generally conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II (1978), Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two (1979), with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)

 

Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals (1978-81).  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror, in which he played a modern-day composer haunted by a witch who’s popped forward through time from the 17th century (a role performed with memorable relish by Patricia Quinn).  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, New Tricks and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

 

Frustratingly, Finch’s role in a 1994 episode of Sherlock Holmes, a combined adaptation of two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone and The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, didn’t see him appear alongside Jeremy Brett, the actor widely regarded as the screen’s best-ever Holmes – Brett had to be written out of most of the episode due to health problems.  However, as a villain, Finch did get to face up to the almost-as-good Charles Gray, playing Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.

 

Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the local public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.

 

© Playboy Productions / Columbia Productions