‘They’re not very good, and they know that, right?’ (A 20th Century Women Two for Tuesday)

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20th Century Women quad poster

I recently watched 20th Century Women, a poignant film set in California at the tail-end of the 1970s. I would definitely recommend it as it’s beautifully written and directed by Mike Mills – the man behind videos for everyone from Yoko Ono to Air, who even named a song after him on Talkie Walkie. There’s also a great ensemble cast that includes Annette Bening, Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon), Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant) and Greta Gerwig, once dubbed ‘the Meryl Streep of Mumblecore’ although Gerwig has appeared in a lot more good films than Streep has managed in recent years.

Come to think of it so have Bening, Fanning and Crudup.

Bening is particularly strong here as Dorothea, obsessively overanalyzing everything and obsessively smoking too – to the extent that Don Draper might even believe she should cut down. She’s sarcastic but supportive; anti-authoritarian but keen to daily check her stocks and shares. She owns a sprawling and messy house that sometimes resembles a mini commune – she has given a home to budding photographer Abbie, who is fighting cervical cancer and who dyed her hair red after seeing The Man Who Fell to Earth, William a hippy handyman and, at nights, Julie, who Dorothea’s fifteen year old son Jamie fixates on.

Together these five central characters form a kind of makeshift family.

Dorothea gave birth to Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) late in life and as he likes to points out ‘she was raised during the depression’ as if this was an entirely different world.

As ancient as she is, though, Dorothea retains an open mind and investigates a punkish local club and evaluates her feelings about bands like The Raincoats. She attempts to make sense of young people and the ways they have changed since she was a girl although Jamie, Julie and Abbie often remain a mystery to her – just as I don’t get teenagers of today getting excited about a ringtone or the latest Xbox release – she’s 55 (the age I am now) in 1979, while the Julie character is seventeen (the age I was then).

Here are her thoughts on hearing The Raincoats for the first time:

Dorothea: They’re not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling, and they don’t have any skill, and they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?’

Actually one of the things I think I like about The Raincoats is the clash within their ranks of the musically accomplished (violinist Vicky Aspinall had been playing since she was five and had a classical training) with the intuitive (the rest of the band).

The Raincoats have always been a band that people tend to love or hate. Danny Baker utterly slated them after seeing them play live early in their career; Kurt Cobain adored them and when, in late 1993, the band’s three studio albums were re-released, he happily agreed to supply some liner notes.

Like The Raincoats, 20th Century Women also split opinions. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘exasperatingly supercilious and smug – unfocused, self-consciously cute, nostalgic and empathetic, but never properly funny’.

Ouch.

Bradshaw isn’t a fan of anything indie and quirky and I while I struggle myself with uber kooky efforts like Napoleon Dynamite and Eagle vs Shark, I obviously found the film far more enjoyable than he did and while Bradshaw detested the stills, intertitles and archive footage that punctuate the movie I thought their use was often inspired. We see stills of Debbie Harry and Humphrey Bogart, typographic quotes from Judy Blume and Susan Lydon, we see Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech and even a little sequence from Koyaanisqatsi.

There are also multiple-narrative voiceovers, usually rotating between mother and son but with each of the five main characters contributing.

From the spring of 1979 and released (almost inevitably) on Rough Trade, this is The Raincoats and Fairytale In The Supermarket:


Just like a recent and similarly themed film, 2015’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, this has a fantastic soundtrack. No Television, T.Rex or the Dwight Twilley Band but Neu! and Suicide, Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Buzzcocks. I never could have guessed that Why Can’t I Touch It? would play over the end credits of a film nominated for two Golden Globes and an Oscar.

Amazingly enough Roger Neill’s score – utilising early synths of the period with a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer to the fore – failed to garner even a nod from the Academy. Slant even went as far as to decry it as ‘ambient music of the yoga-clinic waiting-room variety’.

Me? I reckon it is one of the very best scores I have heard since the end of the 20th century – yeah, that good, full with the kind of wonderful ambient washes that Eno can only dream about nowadays.

And speaking of Brian Eno, here’s another track from the soundtrack, co-written by Bowie, Eno and Carlos Alomar. If The Raincoats split opinions, Bowie as much as just about any artist living or dead unites the musical tastes of Joe Public. Here he is with DJ from his 1979 album Lodger:


For more on The Raincoats, click here.

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A Shel Talmy Two for Tuesday

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Ace Record’s Producer anthologies are always worth investigating – previous compilations have included Jack Nitzsche, Kim Fowley and Shadow Morton – and this week I picked up the latest instalment in the series, Making Time, which features the work of Shel Talmy.

Shel Talmy cover

Shel is certainly a fascinating guy. He worked closely with The Kinks, The Who and The Creation and he also briefly crossed paths in the studio with the young David Bowie (when he was still Davy Jones), Lemmy when he was a Rockin’ Vicar and Jimmy Page when he was a humble session guitarist. He recorded Lee Hazlewood – oh how I wish I could sing like Lee – and also Goldie & the Gingerbreads, who it is claimed were the first all-female rock band to be signed by a major record label – and whose Spectoresque mini-masterpiece titled That’s Why I Love You is one of many highlights here.

Making Time features all these artists as well as some fascinating music by acts that have only ever featured at best peripherally on my radar: Belfast’s Perpetual Langley, and Oliver Norman, whose Drowning in My Own Despair is the best The Four Tops rip-off you will ever hear and then there’s The Rokes, who I’ve just discovered were a bunch of English expatriates who became one of the biggest bands in Italy during the mid ’60s.

The only drawbacks for me is the inclusion of an schmaltzy track by Chad and Jeremy while his production job for The Damned, Stretcher Case Baby, fails to make an appearance.

Here’s something special by one of England’s most under-rated bands of the 1960s. Originally released on Talmy’s Planet Records, this is The Creation and the track that gives the new compilation its name:

 
When Sheldon S. Talmy first arrived in London in 1962, it’s highly unlikely that it would have been described as swinging this being the Britain of Harold Macmillan, heavy smogs and kitchen sink dramas but the American liked the town anyway and in order to extend his stay he hatched a money-making plan, setting up a meeting with Dick Rowe at his Decca office.

Talmy by all accounts was not a man whose motto in life was necessarily ‘honesty is the best policy’. He did possess some experience of working as a recording engineer in L.A. but exaggerated this to the point where he had actually produced a number of records, The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari being maybe the most notable example.

Rowe gave the songs a spin and liked what he heard. Shel landed a job but there was a downside. His first assignment was cutting a single for terminally unhip Dublin act The Bachelors – the track Charmaine was a top ten hit though and Talmy was given the choice of more credible bands.

Within a couple of years he had become synonymous with edgy mod combos playing razor sharp pop with guitar pyrotechnics, the kind of thing that’s usually referred to as freakbeat nowadays.

Talmy certainly captured the blazing crash-bang-wallop of these new acts with a rarely matched panache but, before the end of the decade, he had also succeeded with folk rock in the shape of Roy Harper and The Pentangle and soul in the shape of the aforementioned Perpetual Langley and Oliver Norman.

This, though, is one of Talmy’s purest excursions into commerciality, a wonderful slice of poignant pop which I’d mistakenly thought was called Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. Jones. Extensive research though – thanks, Wiki – tells me that this was indeed the original title given to the song although a modification was made when it occurred to the Manfreds that their recently departed vocalist Paul Jones (who had only just been replaced by Mike D’Abo) might suspect that the song was some kind of dig at him.

From 1966, here’s the first big British hit record to feature a mellotron. This is Manfred Mann and Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James:

It was 50 Years Ago Today

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Sgt Rutters

Exceptional bands often possess a history that is almost as intriguing as their music. Take The Sex Pistols: hooking up with Malcolm McLaren; swearing live on TV and making front page news; getting the heave-ho from EMI and later A&M; banned shows; God Save the Queen being denied official number one status; breaking up in America at the climax of a tour and the sad demise of Nancy Spungen and then Sid Vicious. All that in just a few years.

Compare that to the story of Coldplay where the most interest generated was a celebrity wedding to an over-rated actress.

Imagine trying to write a page turning book or make a gripping film about that lot.

The history of The Beatles was consistently fascinating: their residency at the Star Club in Hamburg; the infamous rejection from Decca; their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance; Beatlemania and Shea Stadium; MBEs and LSD; John Lennon’s ‘more popular than Jesus’ controversy; the death of their manager Brian Epstein and the retreat from playing live until the Apple rooftop concert – these are all just off the top of my head.

Likewise The Rutles stand firmly in the bands with an exceptionally engrossing history camp. And that history does parallel The Beatles to a spookily bizarre extent: just think of their Ratkellar residency in Hamburg; mass adulation in the shape of Rutlemania; their concert at Che Stadium; Nasty’s bigger than God controversy (when sales boomed as devout Christians bought their records just so they could burn them); the weekend near Bogner in the company of Surrey mystic Arthur Sultan and the Stig is dead rumours.

Released fifty years to the day, their phenomenally successful album Sgt. Rutter’s Lonely Darts Club Band undoubtedly had a seismic influence on music and popular culture and remains for many their high point. From it, this is the closing track, the achingly sad Cheese and Onions:

 
You remember the very awkward date between gangster’s moll Mia Wallace and hitman Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction? Mia telling him that: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the world, Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis and Elvis people can like the Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally.’

If the choice was between Beatles and Rutles people, I could claim that I’m actually more a Rutles man myself but claiming to prefer a spoof act (however talented) to the band that gave the world A Day in the Life, Revolution and Helter Skelter would border on striving to become the Katie Hopkins of musical opinions – even if I am happy to acknowledge that The Beatles also gave the world a number of rank rotten ditties like Rocky Raccoon, Wild Honey Pie and Ob-La-Fucking Di, Ob-La-Fucking Da.

I may well, though, honestly prefer The Rutles to Oasis.

From their Tragical History Tour, this is Piggy in the Middle:


Oh, I’ve just remembered something else about Coldplay which might be at least of some interest (and which you likely already know yourselves). Chris Martin once invited David Bowie to collaborate on a track that Coldplay felt would be perfect for the Godlike genius to contribute backing vocals to.

Bowie gave them a knockback, explaining: ‘It’s not a very good song, is it?’

For more on The Rutles, click here.