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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.

FFS

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There’s some potentially very fine shows taking place in Glasgow over the next few days. On Thursday _Linden play the Poetry Club in Glasgow and the following night Lola in Slacks, one of the most promising new Scottish acts to emerge in recent years, will be launching their debut single Tramlines at the CCA.

FFS Barrowlands

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Oh and tonight FFS will be onstage at the Barrowlands, a show that a grown man maybe shouldn’t be getting quite as excited about as I am but one that promises to be a very special event that will live long in the memory. Sparks and Franz Ferdinand for fuck’s sake! At the Barrowlands!

I’m especially looking forward to hearing their version of Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, a song that never makes any of those lists of the greatest ever singles but which certainly should.

Here are Sparks performing the song in 1974 on German TV pop show Disco with an audience that seems to have been collectively on valium. In fact, I’m guessing that Ron and Russell would have had to dispense with the sound effects and fired real gunshots in the studio to have elicited any sort of reaction from this bunch.


And now for some Franz Ferdinand without Sparks, performing what is still their best known work Take Me Out live last year at T in the Park – and no complaints this time about their reception from the audience, who were likely on the Buckfast collectively for the show:


For more on Sparks click here. For more on Franz Ferdinand click here and for more on FFS, guess what? Yep, click here.

Glastonbury 2015

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To a lot of us Phun City and Glastonbury Fair a year later, were glimpses of the future. Glimpses of a community sharing possessions, living with the environment, maintaining their culture and whatever is naturally available, consuming their needs and little else. It was a powerful vision.

Mick Farren: Watch Out Kids (1972)

I’m guessing that there will be a lot of idealists packing their organic hemp backpacks and preparing for yet another Glastonbury as I type. Some might even remember the first festival where the entrance fee was a pound (including a free carton of fresh milk) and T.Rex topped the bill just a month before the release of Ride a White Swan.

I’m also guessing that there will be many, many more revellers with next to no interest in living with the environment and consuming their needs and little else and whose main reason to attend will be the chance to sing along to the chorus of Gold Digger when Kanye West takes to the stage or maybe catch a glimpse of some celeb like Wayne Rooney or Kate Moss. When the party ends this lot will depart happily leaving sleeping bags, tents and a mountain of rubbish behind for someone else to deal with.

As I’ve mentioned before, although I have been to a number of festivals over the years, I’m a small venue type of guy who likes seeing the whites of a singer’s eyes. On Saturday, for instance, I’m heading into McChuill’s in Glasgow where Ali McKenzie and the Band of 1000 Dances will be playing a set – incidentally, this Ali is the former singer with Ronnie Wood’s old band The Birds and not to be confused with the Subs/Shakin’ Pyramids drummer Ali MacKenzie.

Wearing a court jester hat, queuing up for the chance to be charged a fiver for a bacon roll and having my view of the stage obstructed by some eejit waving around a crap flag aren’t too high on my to do list.

Oh, and while I’m at it, when I am desperate for some badly needed shuteye I don’t want some neighbouring trustafarian tapping on his bongo drums outside my tent for hours on end either. This did once happen to me and the said trustafarian asked me the next morning if I’d enjoyed the vibes he had created.

Saying that, this year’s Glastonbury line-up, as always, has a fair number of acts that do appeal to me. And if I had shelled out over two hundred quid for a ticket one of the performances that I would most like to take in would be FFS, or Franz Ferdinand and Sparks if you prefer.

They might have jointly penned a track called Collaborations Don’t Work that but their recently released album is on the whole a very enjoyable listen. From it, here’s Johnny Delusional:


Also playing over the weekend will be Tuff Love, Sleaford Mods, Buzzcocks, The Pop Group, Patti Smith, Lonelady, The Fall, Slaves, Belle and Sebastian, Alvvays, Paul Weller, Django Django, Courtney Barnett, The Waterboys and Fat White Family. And, of course, Glastonbury isn’t just about music and this year features everything from Puppet theatre and a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to a Northern Soul Party with Eddie Piller and anti bullying workshops, to name only four events scattered across the site.

Jim Lambie Linden cover
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Also on Saturday I’m gonna be making the short trek from McChuill’s to Mono, where hopefully I can finally get my paws on a copy of the new album, Rest & Be Thankful, from one of the country’s most consistently fine yet underrated songwriters, Joe McAlinden, formerly of Superstar, who now seems to be styling himself and his band as _Linden.

Here’s the title track:


For more on Glastonbury, click here.

For more on FFS:
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For more on _Linden:
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