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Best of the Year (Part Two): Censor, Our Ladies, The Card Counter & More

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Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor must be one of the most promising debuts of 2021.

The film takes us back to the mid-1980s, when following on from muggings, punk rock and football hooligans, a new moral panic emerged in the shape of video nasties. Encouraged by newspapers like The Daily Mail and Christian conservatives like Mary Whitehouse, some films eventually ended up being prosecuted, many were cut and a list of ‘video nasties’ was drawn up. Many making their way on to the list were worthless trash. Others like Tenebrae, Suspiria and Scanners are today available uncut and critically acclaimed.

Of course, as usually happens with this kind of crusade, many were alerted and attracted to something they might otherwise never have been aware of, some becoming intent on tracking down as many as they could get their paws on.

Here, one of the country’s moral guardians is Enid Baines, played by Niamh Algar. Uptight, everything is far from alright with Enid. She works in a drab warren like environment for a version of the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) and believes utterly that she’s ‘protecting people’ in her role.

Enid suffers from the fallout of a traumatic incident in her past when her younger sister Nina mysteriously disappeared in a local wood while out with her. She clings on to the hope that Nina is still somehow alive and while assessing a B-movie chiller by director Frederick North, she convinces herself that the low-rent scream queen onscreen might indeed be her long-lost sister.

Niamh Algar is a revelation here, managing always to ensure that we empathise with her cold and prudish character even when disagreeing absolutely with what she says and does. Censor looks striking too, with shades of Italian masters like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, as well as British documentary photographer Martin Parr. As for the ending, I think I better watch it again.

The unluckiest film to be given a general release in 2021 must be Our Ladies. It’s based on Alan Warner’s 1998 novel, which on publication was optioned almost immediately. The fact that the novel was titled The Sopranos necessitated a switch of names once the American classic TV of the same name came to our screens the following year. By the time it had finally been filmed, comparisons with Derry Girls, a sitcom also about a bunch of pals attending a Catholic all-girls school in the 1990s became inevitable. There are even some comments on IMDB suggesting it’s a rip-off of the Channel 4 show.

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Our Ladies eventually premiered at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival and was then screened at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival on 28 February, just prior to what was scheduled to be its cinematic release in Britain that March. Then COVID-19 struck, and a string of delays gradually put its general release back to August 2021 in Britain. Good things come to those who wait, though.

The plot concerns a group of Fort William schoolgirls who travel to Edinburgh to take part in a choir competition. In the big city, the girls are more interested in boys, booze, boots and the only singing they’re interested in is at an all-day Northern Soul karaoke session, where they even perform a surprisingly enjoyable version of Tainted Love.

I’m sure some of the faces here will become much better known in years to come.

Look out too for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning body horror Titane, and Parallel Mothers, the latest melodramatic marvel by Pedro Almodóvar starring Penélope Cruz.

Best film of the year? I couldn’t claim to have watched enough new dramas over the past twelve months to make any definitive judgement – I’m still catching up hence the belated nature of this post – but The Card Counter was certainly a standout.

Paul Schrader specialises in bleak films about intense loners facing existential problems. Still delivering the goods in his seventies, his latest focuses on a man known as William Tell (Oscar Isaac), who teaches himself the art of card counting while in prison.

I love my Cincinnati Kids, Mississippi Grinds and California Splits. In an average year it’s about three to one on that I’ll see a new gambling film that hooks me in. The Card Counter did just that. Not that’s it’s really about poker.

William doesn’t like to draw attention to himself and possesses the self-discipline to bet small and leave a casino with more money than he entered with but not the kind of money that will change lives. Winning big would counterproductive. If casinos pick up on his card counting skills he’d be banned.

Despite himself, his expertise is spotted by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a ‘people person’ who runs a stable of gamblers bankrolled by a wealthy syndicate and judges he’s ready to hit the big time.

This tempts William, as by winning big money, he could pay off the debts of Cirk (Sheridan), the son of an Abu Ghraib guard who worked with William and who later committed suicide. They go on the road, with Tell hoping to win enough cash to rid the younger man of his debts and impart some much-needed wisdom to him too.

The three central performers share an impressive chemistry, and Willem Dafoe is very good too. As always.

An Oscar for Oscar Isaac? He might deserve it, but Will Smith would be a better bet for that Best Actor gong. As for Paul Schrader gaining even a nomination for his script or directing, here’s another tip: keep your money in your pocket. Overlooked in the past for his screenplays for films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Schrader’s sole nomination came via First Reformed and he pissed off Hollywood by admitting that he was conflicted as ‘I have never really respected the Academy for their choices.’ This won’t be forgotten any time soon.

A million miles from Hollywood is Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist (my favourite title of the year) written and directed by Brett Gregory. This is a microbudget independent shot in Manchester on a Sony A7R III. Consisting of a series of extended monologues, which might be better suited to a theatrical piece, it tells the harrowing story of a man going through a emotional and psychological breakdown. That man Jack is played by David Howell. His searing performance won’t be seen by the millions sat in multiplexes but it will lodge in the memories of those who do take a chance to see the film.

Finally, there were some impressive physical releases in 2021 too. BFI gave us Dennis Hopper’s nihilistic Out of the Blue, Mike Leigh’sfinest drama Naked, and Chris Petit’s underappreciated post-punk road movie Radio On.

Eureka Masters of Cinema, meanwhile issued Spaghetti Western classic and Tarantino favourite The Great Silence, and VIY, a legendary 1969 film made in the Soviet Union based on Nikolai Gogol’s novella of the same name. It’s said to be the only real horror movie made during the Communist era and only allowed to be made as Stalin had been a fan of Gogol.

And if anyone has ever wondered who the witchy female on the left of my header is, that’s Natalya Varley, who plays Pannochka here.

Best of the Year (One): The Velvet Underground & The Sparks Brothers

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For obvious reasons, 2021 was a year when my visits to cinemas were few and far between. As in, you could count them on one hand. With three fingers to spare.

The most hyped movie of the year was No Time To Die which I felt No Desire To See – the last time I paid in to see a Bond was back when Roger Moore was regularly arching an eyebrow as if to acknowledge the silliness of the scripts he was being saddled with. The publicity machine around Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back was also great, arguably unprecedented for a music documentary. Whether it was justified, I can’t say. Disney+, no thanks.

Anyway, here’s some words on the two films – both music docs – that I did make sure to see on the big screen. First up, Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground.

The young Lou Reed adores doo-wop and rockabilly. He plays in bands from a young age and even records a single as a member of The Jades, which gets a spin on the radio. ‘We got a royalty cheque for two dollars and seventy-nine cents,’ he notes dryly. ‘Which, in fact, turned out to be a lot more than I made in The Velvet Underground.’

He is prone to temper tantrums and is generally disagreeable – although this trait is common in many talented artists musicians and too much niceness can lead to becoming Travis. Lou’s younger sister Merrell debunks talk of their parents forcing him to undergo electric shock therapy to rid him of any homosexual tendencies as ‘simplistic and cartoonish’, which his old pal Allan Hyman, who knew the family, agrees with. His father was certainly distant but far from the ogre he has sometimes been presented as.

John Cale’s granny, though, comes across a bigoted old tyrant. A fearsome Welsh nationalist, she bans the use of English in her home, where Cale’s mum and English father reside after marrying. As his father isn’t a Welsh speaker and John hasn’t been taught English, they can’t properly communicate for years.

After a spell studying music in London, Cale heads to New York in 1964. It’s a hotbed of experimental cinema, avant-garde music and pop art. He teams up with La Monte Young, who’s being seen as a successor to John Cage and joins his Theatre of Eternal Music. He practices drones on his viola every day, while developing a taste for Muddy Waters, The Everly Brothers and beat music.

Accommodation is found in an apartment where Jack Smith of Flaming Creatures fame lives. Smith is one of the leading lights in the city’s underground movie scene, along with Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol and Barbara Rubin. I say underground but as a young Mekas puts it: ‘We are not part really of any subculture, we are the culture.’

Meanwhile, Reed lands a job with Pickwick Records as their in-house songsmith and is paid to churn out sets of songs from nine to five for themed albums sold in Woolworths, ‘twelve surfing songs or twelve breakup songs,’ he explains as examples. It sounds like a not so Brill Building.

Pickwick then persuade John Cale and his pal Tony Conrad to back Lou on a track called The Ostrich. This fails to launch a new dance craze but is a great listen with a whole lotta whooping and a guitar riff borrowed from Then He Kissed Me. Merrill Reed even demonstrates how to do the Ostrich and it’s a delightful moment.

The Primitives are not destined to last long, and neither is Lou’s association with the label, who won’t let him record any of his more personal compositions. A literate live wire, his dark lyrics are influenced by various Beats, Baudelaire, Hubert Selby Jr. and his former tutor Delmore Schwartz.

Enter Sterling Morrison, a university pal of Lou’s with a sinuous yet precise guitar style, who isn’t wearing any shoes when Lou recruits him one day in winter and then enter Maureen Tucker, whose basic but inventive drum style will perfectly anchor their sound together and who is presumably wearing shoes when she’s invited to join.

Barbara Rubin witnesses an early performance at the Café Bizarre and persuades Warhol to see them too. Warhol agrees to sponsor them. They dress in black and wear Ray-Bans indoors at night. They sing about scoring heroin and sado-masochism. Warhol films and a light show are projected onto them and Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov dance with them onstage, brandishing whips. Herman’s Hermits, this bunch are not.

Enter Nico, a German who is conventionally beautiful and who intones her vocals with a very unconventional voice. She becomes a temporary member at the insistence of Warhol. They’re like no other group: High Art/Low Art. American/European. Male/Female. Gentile/Jewish. Straight/Not so Straight.

Moves are made to build a reputation outside their Manhattan milieu. On the West Coast, the gang hit Venice Beach to work on their suntans, with Reed especially keen to fit in some surfing after all those tracks on the subject he’d penned at Pickwick. No, I’m joking. California in 1967 is not a natural habitat for the Velvets. ‘We hated hippies,’ Mary Woronov sneers. ‘I mean, flower power? Burning bras? What the fuck is wrong with you?’ Maureen Tucker also rails against the ‘love and peace crap.’ As she explains: ‘You cannot change minds by handing a flower to some bozo who wants to shoot you.’

The most creative acts tend to have high levels of conflict with their ranks – remember too much niceness can lead to becoming Travis – but when Cale and Reed go to war, the conflict is just too excessive. ‘I really didn’t know how to please him, Cale admits, still astonished by Lou’s vituperative nature five decades later. ‘Try and be nice and he’d hate you more.’

Haynes doesn’t shy away from this abrasiveness and he also lets Amy Taubin take a swipe at the Factory, complaining about women being judged by their looks there. So she likely won’t like me saying that she resembles an angel during her Warhol screentest. The director also limits talking heads to those who were there at the time, so thankfully no bores like Bono or Chris Martin gabbering on about how important Reed & Co were to U2 or Coldplay.

The documentary speeds up. Nico leaves. Lou fires Andy. Andy is shot. Lou sacks John. Doug joins. They stop wearing black but continue to craft some superb music. Pale Blue Eyes is one of the most beautiful tracks ever committed to vinyl, as is Candy Says, which Doug Yule sings.

Many hated them but nobody could deny their versatility. Their previous album had ended with the avant-garage rock squall of Sister Ray. This time round, the final track was a slice of hipster vaudeville with a quirky vocal by Moe.

Album #4, Loaded, is even further removed from their revolutionary beginnings. For Joseph Freeman, they become ‘a regular rock and roll band,’ but what a remarkably good regular rock and roll band they become. Success, though, continues to elude them. Sterling Morrison drops out to return to his studies and Lou goes to live with his parents for a spell. End of band.

Only, a version in name only led by Yule did continue on. They even toured Britain and played in Glasgow at Strathclyde Uni. There was another new album Squeeze credited to The Velvet Underground with no original members involved. None of this is mentioned here, though. Perhaps wisely.

Instead, we get a frenetic montage of photos of what the Velvets got up to next flashing before our eyes, accompanied by Ocean (the drums thundering gloriously around the cinema) which morphs into a tamer version played by the reunited Velvets in 1993. This is followed by a clip of Lou in, I’d guess 1975, on the phone discussing Cale and Tucker and showing a frail looking Warhol a picture of the band in Guy Peellaert’s book Rock Dreams. An acoustic take on Heroin from the 1972 Paris show that reunited Cale, Reed and Nico, then leads us into the end credits, a curious choice as it moved the story backwards and left out two key players.

Rolling Stone claim the documentary is ‘as radical, daring and brilliant as the band itself,’ but that would be an impossibility. Haynes mimics the split screen technique that Warhol utilized in movies like Outer and Inner Space and Chelsea Girls, which is appropriate (and must have been a nightmare to edit together) and the story is told in a largely linear fashion with talking heads, archive footage and photos.

The effect is kaleidoscopic, the screen bursting with a dizzying array of rapidfire imagery – sometimes you wish it could be slowed down like Warhol’s Kiss movies so you could take in more. With so many of the central figures of the story now dead, it’s as near to a definitive take on the band that we’re likely to ever get and a fine tribute to the most innovative band that has ever existed. I could happily have watched even more, much more, maybe even the near eight hours runtime of Get Back.

Hopefully, a physical release crammed with extras appears soon, including a commentary from Haynes.

The Sparks Brothers is already out on DVD and Blu-ray with an extra disc containing a 22-song live show from London and over two hours of deleted scenes and more.

Edgar Wright is a self-confessed fanboy, which he jokes about in the documentary. His idiosyncratic take on the idiosyncratic cult pop duo is two hours and fifteen minutes long and most of that time is a joy, although I would question if we really needed the gushing thoughts of so many of their enthusiasts like Jack Antonoff and DJ Lance Rock, whoever they are. Some of these clips would have been better suited to being extras. Ron and Russell are very droll though, as is Steve Jones, and it’s incredible that during their fifty-year career they’ve somehow managed to reinvent their music so many times. Ron’s look, on the other hand, never really changes.

This might be the Wright film I’ve enjoyed most since Shaun of the Dead.

As for Annette, the musical drama conceived by the Mael brothers, I’ll just say that I preferred Rollercoaster, the 1977 B-movie they appeared in.

She’s A Waterfall & Fanciable Headcase (A 1980s Manchester Two For Tuesday)

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Firstly, some Magic Roundabout. No, not Dougal, Florence, Zebedee and the gang but a Manchester based independent band who I first discovered earlier this year. Listening to the track Sneaky Feelin’ on BBC 6 Music and hearing that this, their first ever single, was about to be released, I initially concluded they must be a contemporary combo pointlessly pastiching the sound of the kind of English indie band who in the 1980s would record a Peel session, put out a single on their own label and then likely disappear into oblivion.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Magic Roundabout were very much an English indie band of the 1980s, but one that never even reached the point of releasing any single or recording a Peel session. They did, though, support The Blue Aeroplanes, Inspiral Carpets, My Bloody Valentine, and The Pastels among others and attracted a number of fans.

The most significant of these proved to be Pale Saint Ian Masters.

Thirty odd years after they’d split, he unearthed an old tape of some of their demos and liked what he heard. This set in motion a chain of events that would end in a remastered compilation of their music called Up coming out on Jack White’s Third Man Records in September.

From it, this is She’s a Waterfall:

It was through Magic Roundabout’s Facebook page that I found out that Charley Keigher, the singer and lyricist of King of the Slums had died.

‘KOTS were dear to us all in Magic Roundabout. We first loved the Spider Psychiatry single back in 86, loved the attitude & we f**king loved Charlie’s dustbin drumming, KOTS just got better & better, a legendary band for sure.’

King of the Slums have been called Manchester’s most underrated group, but I reckon you that you could replace Manchester with Britain and you’d still be right. City Life contended that ‘the music they make is like Fairport Convention on an amphetamine binger’ while in NME, Stuart Maconie judged them to be ‘one of the most compelling bands on the planet.’

They emerged during a backlash against what was being increasingly perceived as lackadaisical and wimpish indie, but nobody was ever going to accuse Keigher of being twee.

He was more likely to snarl out a line about a late-night knee trembler than sing about holding hands and splashing puddles. Like Morrissey, his background was Irish, and both attended St Mary’s Secondary Modern in Stretford. Belligerent ghouls might have run Manchester schools, but they couldn’t crush the talents of these two. In the late 1980s/early 90s, they arguably vied with each another for the title of the country’s finest lyricist.

Scabrous, sarcastic and sometimes funny, Keigher specialised in exploring the dark underbelly of urban Britain in the late stages of Thatcherism, a world of unfit mothers and leery bleeders. The menace and not so quiet desperation of Charley Keigher’s words were matched magnificently by Sarah Curtis’s electric and electrifying violin that sometimes threatened to grate but which added a further layer of grit to the band’s uncompromising brand of uneasy listening.

Onstage, they never shambled either. Filmed live at the Boardwalk in Manchester for BBC Two’s alternative music show Snub TV, this is Fanciable Headcase:

For more on Magic Roundabout click here and for more on King of the Slums, here you go.

White Bird in A Blizzard (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Last week saw the release of the Mockingbird Love EP, four new tracks by former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. They’re all predictably good and conjure up many of those adjectives that critics love to use to describe his former band’s music. Celestial, spellbinding and ethereal for starters.

By a wee coincidence, I finally got round to watching Gregg Araki’s White Bird in A Blizzard from 2014 on the night before I became aware of the Guthrie release.

Sometimes the right piece of music can really set you up for a film. And Sea, Swallow Me by The Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd worked the trick for me here. A perfect mood setter, with Budd’s exquisite soft pedal piano complementing the band perfectly.

You can always rely on Araki for some solid soundtrack choices. He’s one of those American directors like Richard Kelly with a thing for what might loosely be described as British alternative music of the 1980s. It’s easy to imagine rows of shoegaze albums in his record collection, together with everything ever released by New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain and, of course, The Cocteau Twins. In White Bird in a Blizzard, those three acts are joined by The Psychedelic Furs, Talk Talk, Echo and The Bunnymen, Everything But The Girl and others, while Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd also provide some incidental music.

Unfortunately, after having my hopes built up, it turned out that the music is much better than the film as a whole.

Set in suburban America from 1988 to the early 1990s, White Bird in a Blizzard is the story of 17-year-old Kat, played by Shailene Woodley, who comes home from school one afternoon to be told by a pensive father (Christopher Meloni) that her mother Eve (Eva Green) has gone. She’s been threatening to leave him for years, and he doesn’t reckon she will be coming back any time soon.

This isn’t the devastating blow that you might assume for Kat. Through a series of voice-overs and flashbacks, we learn that Eve was never mother of the year material. Or wife of the year material either. Once, her parents had been ‘the quintessential American couple’ – although Eve’s accent is more Paris than Paris, Texas – but it didn’t take long for their marriage to turn sour, with Eve treating her husband like a doormat and Kat not much better. In one particularly disturbing episode a raging Eve wakes her in the middle of the night to grill her on her sex life.

Kat is said to physically resemble her mother, and Eve is becoming inordinately jealous of her daughter’s youthfulness and potential future. She also doesn’t make much of an effort to disguise her sexual interest in Kat’s boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and her behaviour becomes increasingly irrational and her skirts progressively shorter, the longer Kat dates him.

‘Not bad for 42,’ a boozed-up Eve boasts one night to the young couple as she stumbles down into the cellar wearing a skimpy outfit. And yep, she certainly hadn’t scrubbed up too badly.

Like Eve, the film gets a little irrational too. Looking like the sort of thing you might expect to see on some porno website where a young man is employed to deliver pizzas (not that I watch that type of thing, honestly!), the scene featuring a barechested Phil in shorts searching for his mother’s cat as Eve sunbathes in her swimsuit is unintentionally funny.

With Eve still untraceable and Phil showing more interest in gaming and ganja than in having sex with her, Kat’s suspicions about the two maybe having had a thing surface, though not to that great an extent, with Kat maintaining a kind of ‘whatever’ attitude to her mother’s disappearance for much of the movie. And if she doesn’t give a shit about the vanishing act, why should we?

Despite this, she agrees to her dad’s idea that she sees a therapist, played by Angela ‘right here, right now’ Bassett. Kat’s voice-over reveals that she feels ‘feels like an actress playing myself’, while Dr. Thaler reminds her ‘of an actress playing a therapist.’ Bassett reminded me of an actress that deserved a better role.

Lines of dialogue might be clunky and draw attention to themselves, but there are pluses. With some striking dream sequences, the film strays into David Lynch territory and Laura Palmer herself (Sheryl Lee) appears briefly as the new woman in Kat’s father’s life. Of course, Kat has no problems with this turn of events. Initially at least.

Shailene Woodley and Christopher Meloni both put in impressive enough performances and Eva Green does a great line in unhinged, although that accent of hers really should have been explained. Ultimately, the film is a disappointment but one that was still worth a watch.

One huge revelation late on, which is difficult to buy into, is delivered by a voice-over (Araki obviously isn’t a believer in the old screenwriting maxim ‘show don’t tell’) and this is immediately followed by a flashback, though not a flashback of Kat’s, which explains the disappearance with a twist ending that was even more difficult to buy into due to a lack of any real clues given. Not only that but the fact that it was never revealed whether Kat was aware of these events did niggle at me.

*

Here’s another of those inspired Araki soundtrack choices. Sung by Gordon (now Cindy) Sharp, formerly of The Freeze and an old pal of The Cocteaus, this is Fond Affections from This Mortal Coil’s 1984 collection It’ll End in Tears (the video is unofficial in case you’re wondering):

Finally, back to Robin Guthrie, whose new album Pearldiving should be out next month on Soleil Après Minuit. For the time being, here’s Copper, the opening track on the aforementioned Mockingbird Love EP:

For more on Robin Guthrie:

https://www.facebook.com/robinguthrieofficial/

https://robinguthrie.bandcamp.com/

This Is My Happening and It Freaks Me Out!

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Last time around some inventive dancing from La La La Human Steps and David Bowie. To start with this time, some not so inventive dancing from Mark E. Smith and a (presumably) random drunk guy that happened to pass by as the promo for L.A. was being shot and somehow found himself invited to join in the fun. I’m not sure Smith’s pal Michael Clark would have approved.

Never keen on talk about the ‘Brix era’ of The Fall, one of Smith’s resentments was the idea that during this time his then wife glammed the band up. ‘I’ve always tried to dress smart,’ he protested in his book Renegade, where he also pointed out that ‘nobody takes a scruff seriously’ and ‘you don’t want to be walking around like an urban scarecrow.’

The ‘Brix era’ produced some of my favourite Fall albums with This Nation’s Saving Grace maybe edging it as the finest of them with I Am Kurious Oranj not far behind. As for Brix glamming up the band, I’m not so sure Mark E. could ever be glammed up but she certainly injected a glamourous individual element into mix the day she joined. Up until then Fall members had all looked like they spent most nights supping pints of Boddingtons in some dour Prestwich boozer. This didn’t strike Fall fans as a likely habitat for a blonde Californian with a beaming smile but unlike most British independent outfits of the time, The Fall were always good for a surprise.

During 1985, Brix was going through something of an Edie Sedgwick phase and in her parallel career as leader of The Adult Net, she released her tribute to the Warhol superstar on 45 in the wake of This Nation’s Saving Grace hitting record shops. On L.A. Brix provides a mesmerizing Rickenbacker riff and the repeated line borrowed from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls heard in the final quarter of the track that gives this post its title.

Oh, how I missed regularly staging happenings during lockdown even though they have been known to freak me out too!

Equally madcap and melodramatic, if you haven’t seen it, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a trashy exploitation film that was frequently screened as a midnight movie in Britain in the mid-1980s, such as when it was paired with Valley of the Dolls at one of the weekend double bills shows at the Grosvenor in Glasgow. I’m guessing Brix saw it around this time, as in addition to that line, she launched her offshoot Adult Net career with a cover of The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermints, which was featured in the movie.

Here is L.A., which is said to have been John Peel’s least favourite Fall song. File under ‘Things Peelie got seriously wrong.’

In his foreword to the book Excavate!: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, Michael Clark recalls that the first time he saw The Fall live, a member of the Lyceum audience took to the stage and punched Smith. The singer carried on as if nothing had happened. Clark was intrigued by the singer’s response, and his interest in The Fall grew. Soon that interest was reciprocated, and the band would go to see Clark and his troupe dance, sometimes to Fall tracks. They began collaborating, and the highpoint of this would be I Am Curious, Orange.

This was a ballet based let’s say very loosely on the ascension to the British throne of William of Orange and how the consequences of this were still being felt three hundred years later. I wasn’t lying when I said The Fall were always good for a surprise, was I?

Flamboyant and frenetic, with The Fall playing live numbers from their I Am Kurious, Oranj album (not sure why the album and show were spelled differently), there were dancing fruits, a moving phone box and a game of football onstage which wouldn’t have had Alex Ferguson rushing to wave his cheque book at any of the players involved. Michael Clark was King Billy. Brix was wheeled out while sitting on a Claes Oldenburg style hamburger and a gigantic poke of McDonald’s fries was lowered from the ceiling and spilt onto the stage, killing the dancers. Swan Lake this was not.

I saw the show at the King’s Theatre, where it was part of the programme for the 1988 Edinburgh International Festival no less. None of yer Fringe Festival for The Fall. I didn’t remotely understand most of it – I doubt that was the point – but appreciated its anarchic exuberance and, of course, the music.

And I really don’t think King Billy would have approved.

David Bowie & The Most Tragically Brilliant Dancer Alive Today

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It’s not very often that anyone shared a stage with David Bowie and found themselves becoming the main focus of attention. But this did happen in 1988 when Bowie collaborated with Québec based contemporary dance group La La La Human Steps and performed with their lead dancer Louise Lecavalier, before launching into Look Back in Anger and being replaced on dancing duties by another member of the troupe, Donald Weikert.

Lithe, surprisingly strong and with striking bleached white hair, Lecavalier specialised in hurling her body around the stage, flinging herself against – and on top of – her dance partners, and regularly showcasing her trademark sideways barrel jumps. Chris Roberts in Melody Maker, called her as ‘the most tragically brilliant dancer alive today.’

Bowie was making some dreadful artistic decisions around this time, but this pairing up was one of his better ideas. Image-wise, this is a far from high-definition video but it is an essential watch:

When La La La Human Steps announced that they were coming to Glasgow to play the rather posh Theatre Royal, I snapped up a ticket. Until then my only encounter with modern dance was seeing Michael Clark doing his thang once with The Fall but it’s good to get out your comfort zone once in a while and I ended up transfixed by their brand of highly physical dance. I’m pretty sure I even must have gasped in amazement more than once during their frenetic, fearless and gravity defying routines. They all must have woken up the next morning bruised, exhausted and with aching bones.

I bet they all have dodgy knees and hips nowadays.

After seeing La La La Human Steps’ Human Sex duo no 1 in 1987, Bowie wanted them to be part of his Glass Spider tour though scheduling conflicts didn’t permit this but in 1990, he coaxed the company’s choreographer Édouard Lock to act as the artistic director on his Sound+Vision tour. Throughout the 100+ dates, video recordings of Louise Lecavalier in action were screened behind the band. Some shows, such as the one staged at the Montreal Forum, also saw members of La La La Human Steps joining Bowie onstage.

‘You’ve never seen anything like them before,’ he enthused to Elle. ‘It’s where punk and ballet clash with each other.’

Lecavalier also appeared in the video for Fame ’90, shot by Gus Van Sant hot on the heels of his success with Drugstore Cowboy.

Fame ’90, it would have to be admitted, was an entirely unnecessary reworking of a song that was never going to be improved upon, another of those poor artistic choices mentioned earlier. This substandard incarnation of the classic also appeared on the Pretty Woman soundtrack. Oh dear.

Good video, though.

For more on Louise Lecavalier, click here.

Stigma: Folk Horror #5

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A few traditionalists might have sipped their glass of vintage port uneasily while tuned in to the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas in 1977. Previously these had all been classic adaptations of the work of M.R. James or Charles Dickens. This was a new script, set in the present day and had more in common with David Cronenberg than it did some earlier entries in the annual series. And it was about as Christmassy as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon.

Clive Exton supplied the screenplay. Best known for British serial killer film 10 Rillington Place, Exton had also written Doomwatch in 1972, which might be described as an eco-thriller with elements of folk horror. His script here combines body horror with folk horror, not that anybody would have used that latter term when Stigma was first shown on BBC1.

The Delgado family have just moved into a new picture postcard cottage in Avebury, Wiltshire. Katherine (Kate Binchy) and daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) travel home in a car and Kate faces some low-level resentment from her daughter during the journey. Verity is hardly thrilled to be escaping to the country from London, sensing that teenage kicks will be hard to come by in a sleepy village.

When they arrive home, two workmen Dave and Richard are struggling to hoist a huge stone in their garden from the ground.

‘Why can’t you leave it there?’ Verity protests, and the workmen agree she has a point.

‘It’d spoil the lawn,’ Katherine notes, perhaps a little reluctantly.

You just know this is a bad idea, don’t you?

The camera pans across to the fields beyond the garden, the site of one of the Avebury stone circles that could be seen fleetingly moments earlier.

As she starts preparing a meal, a commentator on the radio outlines the progress of two Voyager spacecraft launched some months beforehand. This is the modern world, and the future is more important than the past, the mysteries of space more fascinating than the ancient mysteries on their doorstep.

Outside, she watches on as the men’s JCB crane finally lifts the stone, albeit only six inches or so above the ground. As it does so some wyrd forces display themselves but only to Katherine.

Wind gusts into her face. She is sent into a trancelike state. She traipses indoors where ornaments, a clock and framed pictures rattle. Small cracks run up a wall. A small mirror smashes. Katherine recovers somewhat.

Verity is unaware that anything strange happened, which the viewer might read as a strong indication that what just took place was only in Katherine’s head.

Soon, Katherine sees blood smearing a plate. She examines her hands but there’s no visible cut. Maybe it’s from the brisket of beef she has begun to prepare, but no – and I better warn you that some spoilers lie ahead.

Tiny droplets of blood begin to inexplicably ooze from her side and forehead for no identifiable reason.

It’s like a particularly distressing anxiety dream (and twice we can glimpse an etching of Fuseli’s famously disturbing image The Nightmare where an incubus sits upon a woman sleeping with outstretched arms). In her bathroom Katherine desperately attempts to wipe the blood from her torso. This is an uneasy, even harrowing watch. I would guess that some complaints were fired off to the BBC about the (semi) nudity but this can’t be viewed as salacious in any way. If anybody enjoys watching this then I’d advise them to seek professional help.

Eventually, the bleeding subsides, and Katherine is able to dine with Peter and Verity that evening.

That night, though, Peter is woken by the noise of a steady drip. Vague voices are heard and laughter. He gets up goes to investigate. An onion rolls off a table, a knife rotates, and some oven rings have been left on. Perplexed, he goes back to bed. 

The next morning, the workmen return with a larger crane. This time round the stone is completely dislodged. Dave and Richard find a skeleton underneath where it lay, and it’s surrounded by carefully placed daggers. Verity suggests that this means the burial was intended for a witch.

‘The old religion,’ she explains. ‘Read about it in a book. They used to bury them under big stones.’

She begins to peel away the outer layer of an onion’s skin, her nails bright red. Maybe she’s also read that onions help ward off evil spirits.

Meanwhile, very bad things are happening to her mother.

Directed by BBC Ghost Story for Christmas regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, Stigma lasts just over half an hour and is continuously engaging from start to finish.

Kate Binchy excels at portraying – without words – the growing panic of her character and there’s a great use of location. By a coincidence, 1977 had started with another drama filmed in Avebury, Children of the Stones on ITV’s late afternoon children’s slot (and believe me, they don’t make them like that anymore on children’s TV).

Most critics disliked Stigma, although surprisingly, the Daily Mail was impressed, their reviewer noting that it ‘worked on the imagination as well as the senses’. I agree, though why the curse unleashed by the stone’s removal only affected Katherine remains a mystery to me.

For more on Stigma, click here.

Bernard Meets Dorothy, Waterloo Station, Every Friday Night

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‘For me the perfect pop song is Waterloo Sunset,’ Dave Gilmour has said on a number of occasions, while according critic Robert Christgau, it’s ‘the most beautiful song in the English language’.

‘Three minutes of sheer musical genius which is still regarded by many as the apogee of the swinging sixties single,’ Allan Laing gushed in the Glasgow Herald twenty years ago. ‘Quite simply, nothing better ever revolved around a Dansette turntable at 45rpm.’

So, if I told you I had seen the band take to the Glasgow Apollo stage early in 1979, you might ask how it felt to be singing along with thousands of others to one of the most achingly poignant and evocative songs written in the twentieth century?

Whether or not Waterloo Sunset was fine on that particular night, though, was not disclosed by Raymond Douglas Davies.

Okay, it was a long time ago and I would have been the worse for wear after far too many beers for somebody who was still underage and relatively new to the drinking game, but I am pretty certain they didn’t play it, which must be the equivalent of the Stones failing to trot out Satisfaction in whatever enormodome they next perform in, or Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey deciding to remove My Generation from their set-list.

Certainly, The Kinks did put on a fantastic show that night despite the absence of their most loved track.

I’m not sure about Waterloo Sunset being the most beautiful song in the English language myself. That’s a big claim. It’s definitely up there but if I’m being super pernickety, I’m not very keen on the double negative of ‘I don’t need no friends’ or the ‘chilly, chilly is the evening time’ line which sounds as if it comes from the England of Thomas Hardy rather than the London of Blowup, Oz and the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream. Not that the contrarian singer would be much enamoured with the summer of love, which when Waterloo Sunset was released that May 1967, was just beginning to get into gear.

Davies, incidentally, has claimed that before he settled on Terry and Julie for his lyrics, he considered George and Mabel and even Bernard and Dorothy instead. Just try singing ‘Bernard meets Dorothy, Waterloo Station / Every Friday night.’

Not quite the same ring to it, has it?

I reckon Ray was on the wind-up when he mentioned those names as they scan so badly. Not only does Terry and Julie have a better flow but I would guess by choosing them, Davies intended to inject a talking point into the song knowing the public would inevitably debate whether it was about Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, two of the stars of Far From The Madding Crowd, John Schlesinger’s high-profile adaptation of the Hardy novel that was being filmed as the record was being recorded.

Sadly no promo was shot to promote the single and there doesn’t seem to be any performances of the track from the 1960s available to watch online but here is Waterloo Sunset from The Kinks In Concert, a half hour live concert first shown on BBC 2 in March 1973:

For more on The Kinks: https://www.facebook.com/TheKinksOfficial

The Crunch, Strict Machine & The Answer To The Question: What is Even More Wonderful Than Charlotte Gainsbourg?

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Ah, the 1970s. Anybody my age can likely remember the elaborate ritual of getting dressed up for a night out at your local disco. Pulling on your fingerless gloves, then slipping a big bangle round each hand. Next, you’d roll a ninja mask over your head before squeezing into the pièce de résistance, your transparent bin liner thingyme.

Who could fail to admire your sense of style?

The RAH Band consisted of a sole member Richard Anthony Hewson. A jazz guitarist, Hewson was a favourite orchestral arranger with Apple (the original Apple that is) and worked with The Beatles, Badfinger and solo Paul McCartney.

By the mid-1970s, he was feeling the urge to make a pop record of his own and for his first attempt, he hired a Philips 4-track and laid down a tune in his bedroom, playing all the instruments himself. He later added a brass section in a more conventional way in a studio.

As it’s accompanied by (ahem) a real crunching riff, he titled it The Crunch.

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A few years later, Tony Visconti’s Good Earth label picked up on the track. It was released as a single in February 1977 when people in Scotland were dressing like Nanook of the North and only slowly made any impact, eventually peaking during that year’s heatwave summer, when everybody was dehydrated, sunburned and in T-shirts and shorts.

The Crunch spent two weeks in August at #6 in a chart that included a number of tracks where synthesisers were utilised: I Feel Love, Oxygene Part IV and Magic Fly.

Not that The Crunch was part of any pop/synth revolution. None were used in its making, despite the Minimoog on display on the Top of The Pops appearance. That almost irritatingly catchy riff is the result of Hewson putting his Hohner electric piano through a guitar pedal. This is something I only discovered earlier this year.

Something else I have only recently found out is that Hewson is not the guy with the ninja-mask that you see on Top of the Pops. As The Crunch began racking up enough records sales to send it into the charts, The RAH Band was invited onto the show. Hewson wasn’t available to appear so a pretend band was speedily assembled, in order for the song to gain from some further and very crucial exposure – and in Britain in the 1970s around 15million viewers tuned in every week to the show.

I doubt Hewson was impressed by the imposters.

It’s easy to imagine a very young Alison Goldfrapp bopping around to The Crunch in her bedroom, so here is a slice of Goldfrapp electro-glam from 2003. This is Strict Machine:

Still on the theme of electro-glam, here’s another track that might just contain a little of The Crunch in its DNA. Written and produced by Beck – he plays guitar, synth bass and synth too – this is the video for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Terrible Angels.

And if you’ve ever wondered what could possibly be even more wonderful than Charlotte Gainsbourg, here’s your answer: Charlotte Gainsbourg and a bunch of doppelgangers.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s directorial debut Jane By Charlotte, a documentary examining her relationship with her mum has just received its world premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

For more on Charlotte Gainsbourg, click here.

For more on Goldfrapp, click here.

And more on The RAH Band, here’s yer link.

Something Like A Phenomenon

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Specialising in percussive post-punk disco, Liquid Liquid emerged in the crazily creative New York of ESG, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Afrika Bambaata, Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch and Lydia Lunch.

Signed to independent 99 Records, they’re best known for their 1983 12″ EP Optimo, the title track of which would go on to give both a Sunday club night in Glasgow’s Sub Club and the DJ duo behind the night their names. But much as I love that ‘samba punk’ track, my favourite song on the EP is Cavern and here it is:

Don’t you just love Richard McGuire’s two-note bassline?

Grandmaster Melle Mel certainly did. The writing credit for his track White Lines (Don’t Do It) was assigned to him together with Sugar Hill Records co-owner Sylvia Robinson.

99’s head honcho Ed Bahlman thought this crossed the line (white or otherwise) and took legal action. A court battle ensued. Not the only one to involve Sugar Hill. In one of the most blatant musical thefts of the era, The Sugarhill Gang had nicked the instrumental introduction of Chic’s Good Times, composed by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers for Rapper’s Delight. Edwards and Rodgers launched a copyright infringement lawsuit, and there was only going to be one winner there.

Not quite such good times for The Sugarhill Gang – who also copied sections of their rhymes from other rappers like MC Grandmaster Caz and took the beginning of their track from British disco act Love De-Luxe’s Here Comes That Sound Again.

How did the Liquid Liquid case go? As Terry Tolkin, a 99 Records employee, put it on his YouTube channel: ‘After a furious two year precedent setting legal war, we won a quarter of a million dollar judgement.’

Unfortunately, this is one of those good news, bad news scenarios. Here’s the bad news. ‘Two weeks later Sugarhill Records declared bankruptcy and never paid 99 a single penny.’

Sadly, the case bankrupted 99 too and soon a disillusioned Liquid Liquid disbanded, albeit they later reunited after a lengthy absence – two highlights being performing with the Optimo deejays in 2008 at London’s Barbican and opening up for LCD Soundsystem at that act’s ‘farewell’ show at Madison Square Garden in 2011.

Before the reunion, a silver lining of sorts had emerged via the Worst Album Ever Made according to Q magazine – Thank You, a 1995 Duran Duran covers collection (I should point out the Q named it worst ever album in 2006, before Mumford & Sons, Ed Sheeran and Gerry Cinnamon had yet embarked on their recording careers). Thank You included a version of White Lines, which, no thank you, I never want to hear but at least this resulted in Liquid Liquid finally receiving some well-deserved royalty payments for their songwriting.

So what do I think of White Lines? The Grandmaster & Melle Mel* ‘original’ that is?

Firstly, I’m no fan of being preached to by musicians, especially by ones who were allegedly hoovering up a not inconsiderable amount of ching up their own noses while the track was being recorded.

But hey, I utterly love the urgency they inject into the song and I am fond of a bit of rang dang diggedy dang di-dang. It’s a fantastic listen, addictive even.

For more on Liquid Liquid click here.

*If you’re wondering about the Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel billing on the single’s sleeve, that was a Sugar Hill ploy to sell more records by giving the impression of Flash involvement as he was already a name after The Message, a top ten single in Britain and NME’s Track of the Year in 1982. He had nothing to do with this song, though. Call me sceptical but I’m beginning to think the label was about as trustworthy as the guy who called me last week about my Amazon package even though I refuse to use Amazon.

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