A sad day for the Sisters

 

© Merciful Release

 

When American music composer and producer Jim Steinman died last week, the tributes paid to him made heavy mention of two titles: 1977’s Bat Out of Hell, the album by Meat Loaf, and 1983’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, the ballad by Bonnie Tyler.  Steinman wrote the songs, played keyboards and percussion and provided ‘lascivious effects’ on the former and wrote and produced the latter.  He was not a man who did things by halves in his orchestrations, in his lyrics or in the performances he encouraged from his singers.  Thus, both Bat and Eclipse are synonymous with bombast, histrionics, chest beating, garment rending, howling at the moon and general wildly over-the-top melodrama.

 

Which makes my experiences with Steinman’s two most famous pieces of work strange.  Because when I hear Bat Out of Hell nowadays, the images that it conjures up in my head are of the summer landscapes of bucolic Country Tyrone in Northern Ireland: of hayfields, barley-fields and pastureland populated by herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.  Whereas if I hear a burst of Total Eclipse of the Heart, I’m immediately transported to the wolds of equally bucolic County Lincolnshire in England, during the early springtime, with freshly ploughed fields undulating off into the soft morning mist.

 

To elaborate. In the summer of 1982 I worked on the farm of my Uncle Annett, in the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone. My cousin there was a big Meat Loaf fan and when we weren’t toiling in the fields and were back in the farmhouse, Bat Out of Hell never seemed to be off the stereo. The farmhouse reverberated with the vrooming of motorcycles and Meat Loaf hollering about screaming sirens, howling fires, evil in the air, thunder in the sky, being all revved up with nowhere to go, praying for the end of time, glowing like metal on the edge of a knife, etc.  Stirring stuff, but it was incongruous background music for my life at the time, which consisted of lugging around bales of hay, mucking out cowsheds, feeding pigs, thinning turnips and holding down sheep while they had their fleeces sheared.

 

Admittedly, I did ride a motorbike that summer.  My cousin had recently graduated from riding a motorbike to driving a car and his old motorcycle was stashed in an outhouse on the farm. My uncle took it out and taught me how to ride it.  I didn’t venture out onto the roads, though.  Instead, I’d ride it up the surrounding slopes and across the surrounding fields when I had to check on my uncle’s sheep.  So no doubt while I cruised past those woolly flocks, Meat Loaf was roaring in my brain about hitting the highway like a battering ram on a silver-black phantom bike and so on.

 

© Sony / Epic / Cleveland International Records

 

Fast-forward eight months from then to March 1983 and I was employed in a different job in a different part of the world. I was working as a volunteer houseparent and classroom-assistant at a residential school for ‘maladjusted boys’, which was the un-politically correct 1980s parlance for what today would be termed ‘boys with behavioural issues’.  The school was on the outskirts of the town of Louth in Lincolnshire, in the English Midlands. Walk one way from the school and you’d end up in the town, walk the other way and you’d soon be among the gently curving Lincolnshire wolds.  The school’s older boys stayed in their own residence, with its own kitchen and living room, and I was doing an evening shift there one Thursday when Top of the Pops started on the living-room TV. The show aired a newly released song and video by Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart.

 

The Lincolnshire lads in the residence were either sharp-footed Michael Jackson wannabes or bequiffed rockabilly types who’d been influenced by the Elvis albums in their dads’ record collections. Their immediate reaction, and my immediate reaction, was: “What the f**k are we listening to?”  For Ms Tyler’s tonsil-rattling performance, caterwauling about falling in love, falling apart, living in a powder keg, giving off sparks, forever going to start tonight, etc., was unlike anything we’d heard before.

 

It was also unlike anything we’d seen before.  The video, directed by Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, and full of fluttering candles, billowing lace curtains, slow-motion flapping doves, dancing ninjas, nocturnal fencers, indoor American football players, acrobats in bondage gear and glowing-eyed demonically possessed choirboys, was pretty far-out too.

 

The song immediately went to number one in the British singles charts so I heard a lot of it in the ensuing weeks.  In particular, it got played a lot in Louth’s top – only? – post-pub nightspot of the time, which was the social club for the local branch of the Liberal Party.  Thus, while its dance floor quaked to the bellowing of Bonnie Tyler, I’d be sitting having a pint with some regulars who were proudly telling me for the umpteenth time how they’d ‘had David Steel in here just the other year.’

 

Today I don’t mind Bat Out of Hell too much, but I could happily live the rest of my life – and any future lives, if reincarnation is a thing – without ever hearing Total Eclipse of the Heart again.  For one thing, Eclipse’s success spawned a zillion hideous 1980s and 1990s power ballads, sung under the misapprehension that the louder and shriller you are, the greater the emotion you convey.  The biggest culprit here is Celine Dion and yes, it was Jim Steinman who penned her interminable 1996 ballad It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

 

From jimsteinman.com

 

And yet…  I can forgive Steinman for any crimes he indirectly committed against music by encouraging the growth of the power ballad.  That’s because for a couple of years at the end of the 1980s he worked with the Goth-rock band the Sisters of Mercy and made them sound like the mightiest group in the universe.  In 1990 he co-wrote and co-produced the storming tune More with the band’s frontman Andrew Eldritch, while in 1987 he produced two Sisters songs, Dominion / Mother Russia and This Corrosion.  The latter is surely one of the greatest Goth anthems ever.

 

Although This Corrosion was written by Andrew Eldritch, it has Steinman’s aural fingerprints all over it, most notably the Wagnerian squalls of guitar and the use of the 40-strong New York Choral Society to provide a celestial choir at the beginning.  Sweetly, the first comment below the song’s video on YouTube claims that “When a Goth dies, their voice gets added to the choir at the intro.”

 

Eldritch once told Sounds magazine that “It’s about the idiots, full of sound and fury, who stampede around this world signifying nothing… about people who sing about the corrosion of things while they themselves are falling apart.”  Supposedly, the sound-and-fury-filled idiots he had in mind were his former colleagues Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams, who quit the Sisters of Mercy in 1985 and formed their own band the Mission.  Elsewhere, in Q magazine, he likened the relationship between the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission to that between China and Taiwan.  It was obvious which band Eldritch considered the equivalent of the massive, nuclear-armed superpower.

 

Now I like the Mission.  However, in 1998, a 36-song compilation of 1980s and 1990s Goth, industrial, synth and dark indie music was put together under the title of Nocturnal and it had This Corrosion as its opening track and then the Mission’s song Deliverance as its second one.  And when I heard the two played together, I realised that with their Steinman-produced opus the Sisters of Mercy blasted the Mission out of the water.  Incidentally, This Corrosion is used to great effect in the finale of Edgar Wright’s underrated 2013 sci-fi / horror / comedy movie The World’s End.

 

Despite having a reputation for being a bit of a dick to work with, Eldritch spoke generously of Steinman.  For instance, he said that Steinman “really knows how to make a wonderfully stupid record.  Totally outrageous.  Every time you think to yourself, do we really want to go this far, and you say to Jim, ‘Jim, are sure about this?’ and anybody else will go, ‘Don’t do it!’, Jim goes, ‘More!  More!  More people singing!’  It works.”

 

That’s the spirit.  And here, for anyone wishing to really immerse themselves in Jim Steinman’s glorious bombast, is a link to the 11-minute remix of This Corrosion.

 

From marktracks.blogspot.com / youtube.com

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