Radio On (1979): British Movie Night #5

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Music plays a big part in Radio On. Its opening credits even advertise not only the artists that we’ll be soon be hearing but the individual tracks. It opens with David Bowie’s Heroes accompanying some obviously handheld camera shots of someone prowling through a house, that initially appears empty. Doors open and close, and we get a glimpse of a man lying motionless in a bath, presumably having committed suicide. Or maybe not. This is not a film that gives much away.

The lyrics move into the German version of the song, Helden, giving a hint that like Deep End, this is another British/West German co-production, funded jointly by the BFI and Wim Wender’s production company. And yes, the influence of the German director’s early movies is easily identifiable here, no surprise as he acted as associate producer and the film was shot by his frequent collaborator Martin Schäfer, while his then-partner Lisa Kreuzer plays a German woman Ingrid searching for her daughter Alice – an in-joke on Wenders’ Alice in the Cities where she played a woman searching for a daughter named – you’ve guessed it – Alice.

One of the dead man’s final actions was to post a parcel to his brother Robert (David Beames) with three Kraftwerk cassette tapes and a note wishing him a happy birthday. Robert decides to investigate the circumstances of the death further but he’s no Colombo.

Radio On is a real rarity, a British road movie. It’s also a minimalist road movie in every way and moves only between London and the Bristol area. Not much over one hundred miles in distance.

Fast-paced, plot driven and dialogue heavy are not descriptions you’ll ever come across if reading about the film. Petit himself has spoken of how he’s always thought of it as ‘more of a report than a dramatic narrative, about the way things looked and the music we played, about cultural climate and weather, buildings and landscape, a sense of alien record.’

You might not be surprised to hear that Hollywood didn’t come knocking on the door of Chris Petit.

Some scenes serve little purpose in the traditional way of moving the film forward, such as Robert getting his hair cut by the world’s least talkative hairdresser or when, alone, he plays an arcade game called Tumblers without any success.

Sometimes a shot seems superfluous but will later suggest something you feel the need to speculate on. When Robert sets off on the autobahn – sorry – motorway – to Bristol he drives under the Westway and past a wall where the prominent slogan ‘FREE ASTRID PROLL’ has been spray painted – Proll being Baader-Meinhof gang member arrested in London during 1978, her capture spawning a rash of supportive graffiti.

Ingrid’s ex-partner has obtained custody of their daughter and doesn’t want her to see her mother – there are some hints later that this situation is down to her behaving irresponsibly – perhaps getting involved in the fringes of some Red Army Faction style group. Or maybe that’s just my imagination running riot.

Robert goes into a pub and plays Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World on the jukebox. He drinks alone at the bar but when he leaves, there’s a youngish guy in his car. The two haven’t been seen communicating but Robert seems okay with this. An intense squaddie who has served two spells of duty in Northern Ireland, he has witnessed his pal being murdered by Nationalists, an event that has clearly brought on some kind of post-traumatic stress. This has led him to go AWOL and Robert decides he’d be better travelling alone although there is danger inherent in this choice. A little action at long last.

This is a film that can be self-referential. In his job as a nightshift DJ in a giant bakery, Robert plays Ian Dury and The Blockhead’s Sweet Gene Vincent. Later, an Eddie Cochran obsessed garage attendant (played by an on the cusp of fame Sting) mentions the crash that killed Cochran and injured Vincent, explaining that they had just ended their tour at the Bristol Hippodrome, a venue that we’ve seen earlier. Sting’s character also imparts some Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich trivia decades before a character in Tarantino’s Death Proof claimed that Pete Townshend almost quit The Who to join the Wiltshire act. I’m still not buying that one.

There are some more gently amusing in-jokes. When Robert first comes across Ingrid, she’s talking to a friend in German and there are no onscreen subtitles provided. Later the partner of Robert’s brother watches a film with the sound down so as not to wake Robert, relying instead on the subtitles.

Shot during Britain’s Winter of Discontent with the spectre of Margaret Thatcher’s likely victory at the polls looming large, the country looks cold with Schäfer’s black and white cinematography adding a suitably bleak mood to proceedings.

Radio On failed to grab me the way Wenders’ own early films grabbed me although it didn’t annoy me the way some of his later films like The Million Dollar Hotel annoyed me – the motto here being ignore Bono if he ever tries to pitch you an idea.

It was selected for Director’s Fortnight at Cannes before going on to play Britain’s art-house circuit. In the documentary series Punk Brittania, synth pioneer Daniel Miller of The Normal named it as one of his favourite films of the era, particularly admiring its use of Kraftwerk ‘which really threw the whole thing into a completely different, weird spin.’

Quite simply, the soundtrack is superb, easily the best thing about the film.

It could be split between two distinct camps (almost). Firstly, there are a number of very forward looking acts – Bowie, Kraftwerk, Robert Fripp and Devo – connected in a number of ways: Bowie used to regularly enthuse about Kraftwerk being his favourite group, while they name-checked him on Trans-Europe Express. Robert Fripp supplied lead guitar on Heroes, and after seeing Devo play Max’s Kansas City, Bowie took to the stage to declare them ‘the band of the future’. Fripp volunteered his services for production duties for their debut album but instead they chose Eno assisted by Bowie. The album was recorded at former Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank’s studio.*

Secondly, there are a bunch of Stiffs: the aforementioned Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury and The Blockheads, together with The Rumour and Lene Lovich – whose Lucky Number was shooting up the British singles chart as Petit filmed. Stiff Records’ head honcho Dave Robinson was agreeable to the idea that as many of his publicity hungry label’s roster be represented as possible and a deal was struck at a very agreeable price for Petit, including Devo whose frenetic take on Satisfaction did appear on Stiff in Britain (hence ‘almost’ in brackets in the previous paragraph).

Here’s a clip featuring some Kraftwerk:

Trivia: Nicholas Royle’s novel The Director’s Cut (2000) features a projectionist who has recently programmed and screened Radio On as part of a series of road movies. He also sleeps rough outside Radio On location the Camden Plaza Cinema and imagines meeting Chris Petit as he does so, the director keen to get him involved in a sequel. It’s a recommended read.

* Mark Mothersbaugh recently discovered some tapes of his band jamming with Bowie from these recording sessions and these will likely be released at some point in the not too distant future.

The Fourth Stiff

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Wreckless Eric: Whole Wide World (Stiff Records)

Having already featured Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Nick Lowe in this series, it’s now time for another artist from the Stiff stable.

October 1977 saw many exciting acts booked to take to the stage of the Glasgow Apollo. Dr Feelgood would play together with Mink DeVille; The Stranglers were pencilled in to make their Apollo debut backed by The Rezillos; The Clash were coming too and so were The Suburban Studs, although they were only a support act and the headliners for their show held no appeal for me. I’m still not an AC/DC fan. Then there was the Live Stiffs package tour featuring five different acts that were each playing twenty minute sets before coming together onstage to end the evening with a rambunctious rendition of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

I wanted to see all five shows but there was a problem – I was a schoolboy and money was tight. I could only afford two tickets at most if I wanted to continue being able to buy a few records and have the odd night out at the dancing.

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Although The Clash was a definite.

Suffering from a touch of lazyitis, taking on a part time job was something I’d always found easy to avoid. Most of the girls in my class put in a few hours in shops at weekends to supplement their pocket money; many boys delivered newspapers, but there were no rounds on the go at this point. A guy that sat next to me in Geography said he could get me a job as a milk boy. This would entail getting up at five in the morning and then jumping on and off an electric milk float, lugging heavy crates of milk around housing schemes even in the most hellish of weather so households could drink a pinta milka day.

No thanks.

My pal would come into school knackered each and every morning and would remain knackered for most of the day. Half my time in that class was spent nudging him as our teacher attempted to teach us about the tributaries of the Amazon or tell us what the capital city of Yugoslavia was.

One day, on the cusp of becoming sixteen, I bunked off geography and all my other classes with another pal, jumped on an appropriately named 77 bus, and joined a queue in Renfield Street outside the Apollo. Back then, the best way to get your hands on a ticket was at the venue’s box office, waiting patiently while (in our case) attempting to appear much more adult than our years by affecting an air of nonchalance while all the time half expecting to be hauled out the line by some truant officer, whose daily duty might include visiting hotspots such as this where teenagers would regularly skip school.

We’d decided to attend The Stranglers’ date, although if that had sold out, plan B was to spend our cash on the Stiff night. I’m still not entirely sure that we made the right decision but, hey, since then I have managed to see four of those Live Stiffs acts, although not Larry Wallis even though I did like his single of the time Police Car. Here it is accompanied initially by some footage of Larry’s old stomping ground of Portobello Road in Notting Hill from the 1968 film Otley:

Another minimal production job by Nick Lowe, Whole Wide World is utterly wonderful from the two chord Telecaster strum that introduces the song through to Eric Goulden’s impassioned ‘Yeah’ and Nick Lowe’s Duane Eddy-ish outro. The reverb on that guitar is magnificent. The bass is magnificent and even those simple drum thuds but best of all is Eric’s reedy rasp which grows increasingly manic as the song reaches its climax, as he insists that to find his perfect partner he’d go the whole wide wirld, go the whole wide wirld just to find her.

Timeless, perfect pop.

Okay, some smart-arses might complain about the geographical blunder in the lyrics, the Bahamas being technically situated in the Atlantic, outside the Caribbean rim but I like to think that the lyrics reflect the viewpoint of a character who is fictional – and who maybe had a long milk round meaning he could never properly concentrate on his geography lessons. You don’t automatically assume that Mrs Goulden ever advised the young Wreckless that the only girl for him probably lived in an island in the Pacific, do you? Or for that matter that Larry Wallis was actually a police car?

The story of how Eric was signed to Stiff is an unusual one and I wouldn’t necessarily advise young musicians to copy it today if they’re on the lookout for a deal.

The singer got boozed up before handing in a demo to the Stiff offices in London, announcing his arrival by kicking open the door. A tall guy with a beard and a shaggy haircut asked if he could help and Eric informed him that he was ‘one of those cunts that brings tapes into record companies.’ The bearded guy incidentally was Huey Lewis whose terrible band The News went mega in America in the 1980s with tracks like Hip to be Square and The Power of Love. The tape was passed on.

Once outside the office, Eric immediately wanted to forget the way he’d acted. Before too long, Jake Riviera of Stiff phoned and a pessimistic Eric explained that they could re-use the cassette tape rather than going to the trouble of sending it back. Riviera, of course, loved the tape and the punkish bravado displayed by Eric. He asked him if he could make his way back to the office ASAP before trooping over to Pathway Studios to record Whole Wide World.

Nick Lowe on bass as well as guitar. Steve Goulding of The Rumour on drums. Bish bash bosh. Two takes before bouncing the handclaps together with some tambourines. A few days later Wreckless was back to put down his vocal. And then a very long wait before the song was paired with Semaphore Signals to become Buy 16.

Amazingly, the song failed to chart in Britain and only ever sold a tiny fraction of Huey Lewis’s output but in the forty odd years since its release it has endured and arguably grew steadily more popular.

Ten years after its release, The Monkees covered it on their Pool It! album. Twenty years after that The Proclaimers recorded a version for Life with You. Marilyn Manson has performed the song live and Will Ferrell sang it in a film I have never seen. Earlier this year, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day had a go at Whole Wide World too. Not that I have any desire to ever hear any of these.

I have, though, seen and enjoyed Eric perform the song live onstage with singer-songwriter Amy Rigby. And if you don’t know, Amy, who hails from Pittsburgh, P.A. rather than Tahiti or the Bahamas, turned out to be the one for Wreckless with the pair marrying in 2008.

For more on Wreckless Eric click here.

  • Up next, a 1979 British film with one of my favourite ever soundtracks – which includes Whole Wide World.

Nah Pop, No Style: Althea & Donna – Uptown Top Ranking (Lightning Records)

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‘My reggae tastes only cover the 70s. None of your Shabba Ranks round here, sunshine. I strictly roots I think you’ll find.’ So wrote Luke Haines in his 2011 book Post Everything: Outsider Rock and Roll.

I stretch into the first half of the 1980s myself, and I not so strictly roots. I even thought it was a good idea to buy the first couple of UB40 albums. After the death of Bob Marley, my interest in reggae began to wane. On reflection, maybe that was partly down to a big decrease in my ganja intake.

So no Shabba Ranks round my way either, and definitely none of the ragga and dancehall artists from the era when ridiculously sexist and insanely homophobic lyrics became commonplace. Tracks like Beenie Man’s Damn which boasts: ‘I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays,’ really ain’t my ting.

Before the latest of my picks of the best records of 1977, here’s a track that I was tempted to choose in its place. This is Marcia Aitken’s heartbreaking Still in Love With You, originally released in Jamaica on the Joe Gibbs Record Globe label, while coming out on Lightning Records in Britain.

Two years ago, the song again found itself in the limelight when Beyoncé used it to announce her On The Run II tour with hubby Jay-Z in a much viewed TV ad. Payment to Marcia Aitken? Not one thin dime. Maybe Beyoncé was feeling the pinch at the time even though the tour reportedly went on to gross over $250 million.

Alton Ellis is another artist who deserves to have had much more money ponied up to him over the years. I know very little about the man other than he has been called the Godfather of Rocksteady and that he doesn’t seem to have been a litiginous man.

Obviously, if you know Uptown Top Ranking, you’ll be almost instantly struck by the similarities between that song and Still In Love With You. Both share the same riddim, which was originated in 1967 by Ellis on his Coxsone Dodd produced Studio 1 single Still In Love. Marcia Aitken’s single did credit him as its composer but he failed to gain any recognition from a number of artists, including the pair who perform our next track.

The sole hit here by teenagers Althea (not Althia) Rose Forrest and Donna Marie Reid, the lyrics of Uptown Top Ranking largely remain, all these years later, a mystery to me. What the pair meant by the line ‘Nah Pop, No Style, A Strictly Roots’, for example, I have no idea.

1977 was arguably a great year for Pop. Britain’s bestselling single of the year was Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You. Some of my fellow Scots have recently been professing their love for another huge hit, Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, but Uptown Top Ranking was surely the most irresistible pop single of 1977.

Strictly roots? I must have another definition for the term.

No style? Okay, one was often seen wearing Deirdre Barlow specs, but the lyrics suggest they both believe they’re leaders in the sartorial stakes, each in their khaki suit and ting, and gorgeous too – to the extent they brag about giving men heart attacks when they see them in their alter backs (which I’m guessing are halter tops).

Again, this is a track that I first heard on John Peel’s Radio 1 show and his championing of it played a big part in its success. Peel placed it at #2 in his 1977 Festive Fifty and the single entered the UK charts in the run up to Christmas. By the tail end of January 1978, it had knocked Wings’ dirge Mull of Kintyre off the top of the chart after its nine week stay. Althea and Donna would enjoy only one week at the top and, unlike Wings, their single failed to sell over two million copies nationwide. But it should have been the other way around.

Let’s get back to the aforementioned Luke Haines. This is from the time when the pop conceptualist teamed up with former Jesus and Mary Chain drummer John Moore and vocalist Sarah Nixey to become Black Box Recorder.

I’m a sucker for posho sounding females talking through a song, and here this is supplied by Sarah Nixey, whose deadpan and detached delivery was achieved, according to Haines in Post Everything, by her being unaware of the original and mightily hungover: ‘We write out the lyrics – mainly Jamaican patois which we cannot make out – phonetically, and she reads them out into the microphone in one take, with the enthusiasm of a cash and carry shelf stacker.’

Works for me. From the 1998 album England Made Me, here is Black Box Recorder and their offbeat version of Uptown Top Ranking: