Friday, February 06, 2015

Lousy Song, Great Solo #5

Famous bands' first guitarists: there’s possibly a book to be written there. You know: the ones that either left, lost their marbles or turned up at the studio to find that their gear was in a skip outside with no explanation (only to get a phone call from a roadie two months later) etc. etc.

From The Yardbirds onwards (Eric Clapton making way for the superior Jeff Beck) the ‘60s and ‘70s are littered with examples of groups who lost founding axe men only to finally make it big. Pink Floyd, of course, had Syd Barrett who, at least, had a few months working WITH his replacement, David (don’t call me ‘Dave’) Gilmour before he was ousted; The Moody Blues lost future Wings member, Denny Laine, but ended up with Justin Hayward (un)luckily for them; Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell drank himself out of a job, only to find that his replacement of TWO guitarists would lead the Irish rockers to world domination; Jethro Tull replaced Mick Abrahams with Martin Barre; Genesis parted ways with Anthony Phillips due to his stage fright (which almost split the band up) before they opted for Steve Hackett; and Yes ejected Pete Banks after a brief power struggle (and a disagreement about the use of an orchestra on their second album, Time and a Word), meaning that they could employ boring old perfectionist, Steve Howe.

Which brings me to the subject of this episode of Lousy Song, Great Solo: David ‘Davy’ O’List, who had the honour of being in TWO bands who went on to greater things after he left them: The Nice and Roxy Music. The poor guy must have felt cursed.

Born in Barnet, and rising to prominence in London’s swinging sixties scene in a third rate bunch of psychedelic chancers known as The Attack (whose biggest claim to fame was that they recorded ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ a few days before Jeff Beck), he was nonetheless a gritty, suitably far-out guitarist who (not unlike Pete Banks in Yes) actually managed that most difficult of tricks: having a truly distinctive sound. Unfortunately (again, as with Banks) the ability to play is rarely enough when you’re in a band with some other erm… strong personalities. Fate was ultimately not kind to these men.

O’List was recruited to join the ensemble that had initially been put together as P.P. Arnold’s backing band by Immediate label boss, and industry manager/provocateur, Andrew Loog Oldham, The Nice. Of course the band already had one show-off in their ranks in the shape of organ-mutilator, Keith Emerson. However at this stage Emerson’s legendary stage high-jinks were tempered by a deft touch on the B3 which owed a lot to his jazz heroes (Jimmy Smith etc.). He had yet to meet Bob Moog and unleash the full force of progressive rock on an unsuspecting public. But along with the powerful and sprightly rhythm section of Brian Davison (drums) and Lee Jackson (bass and gruff vocalisation) The Nice were, in truth, true pioneers. Their sound was both muscular and psychedelic, matching sonic experimentation with classical chops and the ability to stretch out arrangements live. Add to this Emerson’s exhibitionism, such as his tendency to stab his Hammond organ with a Hitler Youth dagger (given to him by their roadie at the time, Lemmy Kilminster), and the band were all set to become one of THE bands to watch in the Summer of Love.

Equally adept at mauling respectable stuff by Bernstein (‘America’) or Bach (ahem… ‘Brandenburger’) as well as writing their own freak-friendly numbers, The Nice looked set for big things. But this was 1967 and show business had yet to understand how to handle or present such wild stuff. It’s here that O’List’s story not only crosses paths with Syd Barrett, but even comes to mirror it. The band were booked on a ‘package’ tour with what now seems like a dream ticket for anyone interested in the period. Stuffed low down on a bill that included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Move, Pink Floyd and Amen Corner, time constraints meant that each act played short sets which veered wildly in content and barely allowed for the full force of their stage craft. Remember, this was famously the period of misguided ‘commercialisation’ which was leading Syd Barrett to rapidly unravel. With a hit (‘See Emily Play’) on their hands and faced with screaming teenagers, such a tour didn’t sit well with the Floyd (or indeed many of these acts who were trying to break free of their ‘pop’ shackles in search of something loftier and more exploratory). Syd became more and more unreliable as the tour trundled on.

It’s interesting to note that Syd’s legendary instability actually led to O’List being drafted in at the last minute to sit in for the missing Madcap at a few shows. By all accounts he was more than up to the task. And yet, less than a year later, the strains of competing with an ego as large as Emerson’s had begun to take a similar toll on the guitarist. Well, either that or some kind of chemicals... Scant footage of the band (see below) shows O’List cowering in the background, unable to compete with the organist's flailing acrobatics. The camera barely registers his presence.

What’s more, some accounts paint O’List as suffering similar mental troubles to Barrett, but whatever the truth, he, himself, became unreliable, arriving late for gigs etc. and following a fateful gig at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall the axe fell.

It’s here that O’List’s destiny almost crosses paths with another of the guitarists mentioned above - Steve Howe - as it was he who was initially auditioned as a replacement. When he eventually turned down the job the band continued as a trendy power trio (in the mould of long-forgotten pioneers, Clouds), upped the classical pretensions and eventually imploded due to lack of success and Emerson’s longings to find a better vocalist (more of which later) and be taken seriously as a composer (stop sniggering at the back).

A couple of years drifting in rock limbo for O’List ended briefly when he placed an ad in the music press looking for a band to fill the void in his professional life. As it happened the person to answer was none other than Bryan Ferry who’d seen O’List in concert at Newcastle City hall in 1968 and had been impressed. And for half a year O’List helped Roxy Music gain shape, even up to the point of recording five numbers for John Peel’s Top Gear show, all of which would eventually turn up on the band’s debut album a year later. By all accounts (barring O’List’s – his own account makes for some mighty peculiar reading) the guitarist’s eccentricities quickly wore on the other members and with a young PhilipTargett-Adams (later to be renamed Manzanera) in the wings as their road manager, the writing was on the wall. Once more fame and fortune had eluded O’List.

This isn’t the end of his story, however. As the above linked interview recounts, O’List’s hasty ejection from Roxy seemed to have left Ferry feeling uncharacteristically guilty, and he was invited back to provide some guitar on Ferry’s second solo album, Another Time, Another Place. O’List’s claims to have played on the later hit, ‘Let’s Stick Together’ seem somewhat far-fetched, yet his contribution to Ferry’s ‘74 hit: a version of Dobie Grey’s mod classic, ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’, is an undeniable fact. I’d even considered picking this number as the subject for this LSGS. The wigged-out solo at the close of the track is just about the only thing that redeems its rather plodding approach. Attacking a soul classic with a rhythm section made up of not only Roxy’s Paul Thompson (never a subtle drummer) but also John Wetton on bass was never really going to suit the number, and Ferry’s delivery can only be described as dull.

But to return to the subject of this article: back in 1967 The Nice were signed to Immediate records and recording their debut album which went under the amusingly cod-serious title of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (see what they did there?). This was to be The Nice at their most concise and approachable as well as their most psychedelic. The album, coupled with the single version of ‘America’ (which features a great solo by O’List at its core), would turn out to be one of the great defining documents of English psych. From the revved up re-tooling of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’ (here renamed ‘Rondo’) via the full-on baroque pop explosions of the title track and outtake (included on reissue), ‘Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon’ to the creepy experimentalism of tracks like ‘Dawn’; the album is actually a delightful product of its time. O’List is on fire throughout: just check out his explosive intro to ‘Bonny K’. However, also very much a product of its time are Lee Jackson’s hokey, jokey, florid lyrics.

While I can understand why Emerson would eventually tire of Jackson’s rasping, oft-shouted vocals, preferring the angelic pipes of Greg Lake as an accompaniment to his mock-symphonies, I have a bit of a soft spot for his voice. On later work, such as their take on Dylan’s ‘Country Pie’, I think his Geordie bluster fits the bill nicely. But there are times when it can grate terribly. One such moment is on the song chosen for this series: ‘The Cry Of Eugene’.

Closing the album, this track sums up just about everything both right and wrong with The Nice. Emerson’s delicate organ intro displays a sensitivity that runs counter to his usual, more outré approach (as on the bombastic piano ending to ‘Tantalizing Maggie’ which Alan ‘Fluff' Freeman used as a comedy jingle for years on his Radio 1 rock show) and promises far more than is delivered. O’List at this stage limits himself to a weird, overdriven viola-like accompaniment. Enter Jackson, burbling what can be only described as psychedelic drivel. The song’s dreamy atmosphere is completely broken by his barking delivery of lines like ‘’The cry of three plus two times nothing at all, splits all time’s mind asunder.’’ Please, if anyone has the foggiest idea what the song’s about, let me know. Here, the internet has failed me…*

Building in intensity the song reaches a histrionic zenith at the exact mid-point where a frankly wobbly cornet adds a touch of typical English baroque-ness accompanied by Emerson’s thumping Rachmaninov impersonations and all hope seems lost. But out of nowhere at 2’ 45’’ comes O’List playing an arpeggiated, fuzz-drenched six-note motif that rips open the feyness and forcefully shoves the song into its tortured climax. Six notes, played over and over but they all matter. It’s as if someone left the studio door open and the zombie ghost of Jeff Beck walked right in. From this point on all hell breaks loose. Beneath Jackson’s laboured delivery O’List goes positively APESHIT. I can still remember the first time I heard this as a teenager, and even then I recognised the greatness. And, if that weren’t enough, as a masterstroke, 20 seconds before the end of the track the motif reappears, devouring all before it until the song does the only thing it can: stop dead.

Nearly 50 years on, the track (and the album) remain favourites of mine, mainly for O’List’s manic attack. Jackson obviously felt offended by his bandmates’ treatment of the song as he re-recorded an insipid version on the debut album by his follow-up band, Jackson Heights. This version just emphasised how lousy the song was, and yet O’List’s solo remains a highlight of British ‘60s rock.

*Also, I have no idea if the use of the name Eugene had any influence whatsoever on The Pink Floyd's later 'Careful With That Axe Eugene'.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ex Machina (2014)

It’s taken me over a week to write about Ex-Machina, not because I’ve been too busy (although I have) but unfortunately because I saw it on the same day as the previous two films reviewed on this blog. Comparisons may be odious but sometimes they make even a reasonably good film seem a bit lame. And Ex Machina IS reasonably good, but misses the mark on quite a few levels.

Alex Garland’s had a long run-up to this, his directorial debut. It’s a solid gold fact that the man knows his sci-fi. Sunshine, his second joint project with Danny Boyle was entertaining even if it contained more sly references and obvious rip-offs than was, perhaps, decent. Meanwhile his reworking of Judge Dredd’s basic building blocks into a second attempt at bringing Mega City’s law-enforcer to the screen was just magnificent. And yet what hampers Ex Machina is both its failure to ultimately surmount cliche as well as the disappointing development of what could have been some interesting variations on the hackneyed idea of man-made life and the consequences that lie therein.

Ex Machina basically takes all of the previous templates for the dangers of man playing God, from Metropolis to Spielberg’s A.I. and tries to give it a spin based on (presumably) Stephen Hawking’s recent warnings of the dire consequences of such actions (in short: as soon as machines gain sentience we’re fucked). The idea has become common cinematic fodder recently, in our post-Syri world so it’s little surprise that this aspect of the plot feels rather worn. It even formed the basis of an episode of Elementary. And last year we not only got the truly woeful Johnny Depp vehicle about merging man and machine, Transcendence, but also Scarlett Johanssen in not one, but TWO films exploring the concept (Her and Lucy): both equally terrible albeit for different reasons. Her was glib and pointless while Lucy was just hackneyed shoot-‘em-up schlock. 

This is not to say that Ex Machina is anywhere near as bad as these films. It shares the underground research facility meme with Transcendence, but there any similarities cease. Garland’s scripts are never dumb and the setting of Ex-Machina is a far more believable ultra-chic modernist lair set not in a desert but in the northern wildernesses and filled with glass and cool concrete. The performances here are also much finer. Both male leads are actors who deserve close attention. Oscar Isaac (who was superb as Llewyn Davis), portraying Nathan, the billionaire tech as an odious, manipulative creep is great, while Domhnall Gleeson is also excellently dazed and confused as Caleb, the office nerd who seemingly gets granted the golden ticket to visit Nathan’s Willy Wonka-style research facility. Meanwhile Alicia Vikander transcends her role as sexy robot, Ava to make her possibly the most sympathetic character in the whole film.

Well, so it seems at first, when Caleb has been helicoptered to the wilderness to seemingly test the true self-awareness of Ava, but, of course, there are far more sinister things at stake here. In tone the initial third of the film felt closest to John Fowles’ masterpiece, The Magus. And of course a single, lonely, awkward coder is the perfect dupe to fall for the sexual mind-fucks which subsequently arise.

But it’s in the portrayal of Nathan that the film has its most interesting thread. Here Garland dissects the kind of Wire-reading uber-jock who both parties and practices physical self-improvement hard. He calls Caleb ‘bro’ and bud’, has a truly annoying beard and talks in horrid 21st century cliches. Unfortunately the film’s transparency doesn’t allow for you to feel anything but repulsion for the man, and his manipulation of Caleb is patently obvious from the start, defusing any plot twists in the final third. Yet Garland’s obvious critique the Schmidts, Zuckerbergs and Jobs of this world who assume the cloak of liberal progress while perhaps harbouring far more sinister motives for mankind could so easily have reaped really interesting results. 

Ava’s final (inevitable) revolt also contains the seeds of some interesting notions. Based on the predication that once  men, are given godly powers (or the internet) it will only be a short matter of time before ether use it for some kind of pornographic ends, the film dares to position itself as a post-feminist fable. Yet here sisters (and robots) are still doing it for themselves in high heels and designer dresses, even if ( a little like another Johanssen performance in Under the Skin) they use these feminine whiles to gain their bloody revenge. There’s a glimmer of intrigue in the notion that  - just maybe - AIs could already be amongst us, we just don’t know it. But Ex Machina takes too long trying to look cool to really thoroughly explore any of these innovations.  

Again like Sunshine, Garland lifts plot lines and references wholesale: the notion of browsing history as a method of measuring man’s behavioural patterns is (if anyone’s interested) is lifted from the abortive BSG prequel, Caprica, for starters. And just about anyone who’s seen a movie about creating artificial intelligence knows, it’s hardly ever going to work out well.

Ex Machina does have a few things to recommend it. The portrayal by Vikander of Ava is initially tender and nuanced enough to recreate the same sadness that pervades Spielberg’s AI. This seeming bewilderment at her own creation is oddly touching. And there is a point in the movie where you genuinely start to wonder exactly who is real (just as Caleb questions it himself once he’s figured to the extent of his role as unwitting pawn). But ultimately Ex Machina is merely a very diverting one hour and 40 minutes, instead of the truly original, intelligent science fiction film that we deserve. Still, one hopes that Garland will keep trying.

Finally, if there’s one thing on which I seem to disagree with most other critics about: it’s the soundtrack. At what point did it become de rigeur to fill every other film with cookie cutter post-rock, prefacing every plot highlight/revelation with a twinkling guitar glissando that crescendos into four-four Tortoise-isms? Maybe it was the success of Mogwai with their soundtrack to Zidane, but the stuff has become obvious, unsubtle and just plain intrusive for me. Geoff Barrow’s approximation of the trope here is just terrible.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)

There was a point in the midst of Inherent Vice, PaulThomas Anderson’s latest examination of recent American history, that I began to wonder if he’d made the film just for me. I loved every single second of it, but listening to various (considerably younger) fellow viewers’ comments as I left the screening, realised just how much baggage you need to carry to withstand the two and a half hours of screen time. Dripping with authenticism and almost hermetic in its depiction of a very particular moment in the USA’s road to post-‘60s cynicism, Inherent Vice demands that you know your stuff, counter-culture and politics-wise, not to mention musically.  

(I apologise wholeheartedly if that last paragraph sounded like some pompous way of saying I liked this film and therefore I know a lot of stuff and you will only like this film if you are clever like me. What I’m actually trying to say is that I liked this film so much that I want everyone to like it too, and I worry that it may be a little too niche for many peoples’ tastes.)

Thomas Pynchon’s typically character-rich, absurdist view of the West Coast in 1970 is both dreamily nostalgic (in a good way, says Anderson) for a lost era and the closest equivalent to Chandleresque as he ever got. The shaggy dog tale of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a dope smoking P.I. in requisite khaki combat jacket, shades and sandals, simultaneously chasing a missing construction magnate, an ex-husband, a drug cartel and a lost love.

The oddest thing about Anderson’s film is that, for the first time that I can remember, it bears comparison with and references other films. Of course any circular tale filled with great cameos, stoner logic and an impenetrable mystery is going to make anyone think of The Big Leibowski, and the plot tangles give the whole piece a doper-grandson-of-Chandler dynamic. At about the halfway mark, pretty much as in The Big Sleep, you give up on any kind of grasp on who has done what to who. Apart from the other Altman/Chinatown/Long Goodbye etc. etc. allusions there’s a whole Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo section featuring Martin Short as the superbly deranged dentist, Dr. Rudy Batnoyd. And if that weren’t enough, here’s Benicio Del Toro… as a lawyer! This attorney is, however, an endearing marine law specialist with a taste in deep fried steak. Come to think of it, just about everyone in this film is in some way endearing. Even the villains are acceptably erudite.

Somewhere in between good and bad is, naturally, the policeman nemesis to Doc’s P.I.: Detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin (above), channeling his inner Tommy Lee Jones again. The love/hate hippie/pig relationship is superb, especially as half of their exchanges are by telephone, showing the hilarious juxtaposition of the straight and far out lifestyles of our protaganists. Other turns by Reece Witherspoon as Doc’s Deputy D.A. sort-of main squeeze; Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay, Doc’s ‘ex-old lady’ who leads him into the labyrinth, and even – wow- Eric Roberts(!) as the missing Mickey Wolfmann are all suitably on the money.

In tone (as you’ll undoubtedly expect if you’ve seen the trailer below) the film is Anderson’s lightest for years. It’s not the slapstick-fest you may be expecting from the trailer, but its central performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Doc contains a vast amount of physical comedy. Phoenix has always been a deeply physical actor, but here his facial mugging almost steals the show. An inveterate stoner’s habits mean that dialogue comes thick and…err, thick. More than one reviewer has pointed to one scene between Doc and Owen Wilson (as it turns out, the real point of the movie) as junky sax player and snitch, Coy Harlingen which is all but unintelligible. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, it’s appropriate that it’s the vibe which pervades the entirety which is the most wonderful thing. Not since Boogie Nights has the director been this jolly.

As mentioned above, the numerous Black Panther, Manson Family, Aryan Brotherhood, Vietnam, L.A. music scene, Nixon etc. references mean that maybe this is just a film set to entrance only the likes of me and my crazy ‘niche’ tastes. But I’d like to think not.

When it comes to the music, I can take or leave the Debussy-liteisms of Jonny Greenwood. It works just fine. But the other stuff is a whole heap of ‘60s and ‘70s goodness. Any film that opens with Can’s ‘Vitamin C’  and also features some Les Baxter already has me halfway there. But as Anderson has said in recent interviews: the real musical inspiration of Inherent Vice comes from Neil Young; in particular, his three post-Harvest era masterpieces. Two numbers (Harvest and Journey Through The Past) feature prominently in the soundtrack.

The yearning in Neil feels just right. If there was an NY album that Inherent Vice put me in mind of most, it was On The Beach. The mellow but wary-as-fuck, post-Manson killings vibe is all offset by endless sea and sunshine or twinkling beach front cafes and faux-medieval Topanga mansions filled with tanned ‘teeners’ as Shasta Fay describes them to Doc. But there’s already a sense that the good stuff happened long ago, there are too many memories, too many ex-old ladys, too much paranoia. The lost love does finally come home, but only to tell Doc that she’s not back. And the nemesis pops round to knock down his door, apologise and finally eat his stash. Bummer.

How much of this feeling is from Pynchon I have yet to discover. I feel the need to read it. Any regular readers will know that I raved about Anderson’s last work: The Master. And while Inherent Vice immediately resides inside me in a place that’s closer to my heart, that’s weighed against the fact that The Master had life-defining performances by Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann. Time will tell no doubt tell which film wins, but in the meantime, if you want to see one more film about the death of the hippie ideal, make it this one. It’s brilliant.

Inherent Vice is released in the UK on 30 January.

The Duke Of Burgundy (2014)

One of the natural by-products of a post-feminist world for old codgers like myself who did most of their ‘growing up’ in the ‘70s and ‘80s is that you often end up watching a film and not being sure if you’re even allowed to enjoy it. Remember that lesbian love scene in Mulholland Drive? I’m still not entirely certain that David Lynch should have got away with it. And there’s a moment about 15 minutes into Peter Strickland’s latest film, The Duke Of Burgundy, where you begin to question your own motives in watching the film as well as the (male) director’s for making it. But rather than leaving you about to vacate your seat Strickland pulls an almost genius trick which completely reverses your preconceptions of what, until that point, seemed dangerously close to exploitative. 

Rather childishly referred to as either ‘mucky’ in the Guardian’s review or 'kinky' in the Telegraph'sThe Duke Of Burgundy actually examines a rather touching lesbian S&M relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn. The most notable immediate fact about their mannered, repressed, corseted world full of display cabinets filled with butterflies and moths is the fact that there are no men in it, whatsoever. The two women inhabit a huge villa in some academic town in some unknown country (actually Hungary), and appear to be spending the summer/autumn months pursuing a shared interest in entomology, studying in a dusty old library and attending lectures along with a whole crowd of what can only described as similarly attired MILFs. Strickland uses these lectures to up the weirdness factor (for some unknown reason, one of the attendees is a lifeless mannequin – presumably to highlight the film’s dressing-up subplot). One of them involves the entire audience of women listening to a field recording of an insect’s stridulations (I never thought I’d ever use that word): all them staring vacantly ahead, like some insect-worshipping cult.

Together the pair explores the notions of power, control, fetishism and role-playing within a love affair. Their games initially entail aspects of humiliation that quickly reach levels that, as mentioned above, will undoubtedly test the endurance of the un-kinkier members of the film’s audience.

Yet, suddenly the surface is stripped away to reveal the mechanics of exactly how such a sado-masochistic relationship can function. At its heart the film pokes away at the glossy surface of lingerie and bondage to ask questions as to how you maintain such a peak of erotic play while keeping both partners satisfied. It’s basically an extremist examination of the old cliché of ‘how to keep your relationship fresh.’

There’s an imbalance born of age difference that inevitably sees the ‘games’ become increasingly strained in their artifice. But the film’s masterstroke is in not doing what last year’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour did with its supposedly ground-breaking depiction of gay love, and resorting to an inevitable decline and break up. Just as you think you have figured out the imbalance of power in the relationship (the film’s focus of power is always ambiguous despite the pair’s well-defined ‘roles’ in their games) it takes a new turn and we’re returned to the possibility that just maybe these two women can make their very special form of foreplay work, despite the effort and commitment required. On top of this it’s a heartening depiction of an older woman as sexual and real.

This isn’t to say that that the film’s narrative, like Strickland’s last offering, the excellent Berberian Sound Studio, ever strays too far from the psychedelic/experimental (contrasting ‘70s film effect tropes with digital technology). In fact Strickland’s modus operandi, on the surface can often seem to be a homage/resurrection of ‘70s film genres (not unlike producer Ben Wheatley, whose own next project in retro fetishism after A Field In England is a promising adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise). Here in The Duke Of Burgundy, the source visual material is a disconcerting blend of the same Hammer/Giallo horror that drove his last film, along with distinct nods to perhaps the last taboo from my formative years: arthouse soft-porn. The opening credits ape the style of early ‘70s adult flicks, meanwhile the spirit of Ingrid Pitt constantly lurks, especially during Evelyn’s nightie-clad, candelabra wielding, night time walks.

Post-production dubbed dialogue and use of prismatic filters all add to the Emmanuelle-reborn ambience, but The Duke of Burgundy’s often cold, formal tone and mannered performances - not unlike Peter Greenaway’s best work - is also offset by humour: for example, in its opening credits for a perfume manufacturer. It’s also possibly the only film you’ll see this year that has closing credits that include the species of insects in order of appearance (trivia fans note: the film’s title is a species of butterfly) as well as notations of the exact locations and equipment used for sourced field recordings. Chris Watson would be proud. It’s also a nod to Berberian Sound Studio’s Gilderoy and his recording equipment fetish. Whether this highlights Strickland’s own, more masculine fetishes to offset the feminine plotline remains unclear.

But in fact the film seems to act as a rejoinder for all the women who are so murderously exploited off-screen in Berberian Sound Studio, with the film’s main female protagonist, Fatma Mohamed reappearing here as ‘The Carpenter’, a woman who wields a tape measure like an instrument of pleasure and supplies not only bespoke fetishist’s furniture but also the film’s funniest line (about a 'human toilet' - don't ask...).

Such an audacious attempt to map the perverse means that The Duke of Burgundy is a film which tries, almost too desperately sometimes, to defy description or pigeonholing, as if Strickland wants his audiences to go back to friends and family to gasp, ‘that was bonkers!’. Well, it IS bonkers but as a protracted exercise in weirdness it falls slightly short of the mark, mainly because the trick of maintaining an hallucinatory quality alongside an almost scientific examination of the strains attendant to such a depicted relationship is an almost impossible one to pull off. Strickland still remains one of our most promising directors, despite all of this.

Perhaps most importantly, as a depiction of the possibilities of mutually agreed levels of punishment and ritual as sexual it’s undoubtedly streets ahead of this year’s most eagerly awaited piece of populist schlock erotica, 50 Shades of Grey. In fact I’d challenge any independent cinema owners out there to show the two in a double bill. While I’ve no idea (or interest, even) in how the latter will play on the big screen, I’m 99.9% certain that it won’t approach The Duke of Burgundy’s level of intelligence, daring or transgression. 
The Duke Of Burgundy is released in the UK on 20th February

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Irgendjemand liebt dich immer

Earlier in 2014 I was honoured to be invited to give an opening speech at an exhibition in North Germany by two very splendid artists: Vera Brueggemann (N Germany) and Bruce LaMongo (Vienna, Austria). The exhibition - at Bielefeld's Artists Unlimited Gallery - was entitled Irgendjemand liebt dich immer (trans: There's Always Someone Who Loves You) and featured two rooms containing the individual works of either artist as well as one large room that exhibited the results of a collaborative project that the pair have been working on for the last two years.

These last works consisted of texts sent to each other and then interpreted into graphic form according to each's own whims. The object was seemingly to enjoy not only each other's visions of phrases, cliches and popular sayings selected by the other, but to also revel in the misunderstanding and mis-communication that can result from the clash between two entirely separate cultures and intellects. The results were darkly humorous and wildly creative. Both artists dwell in the realm of the linear but their approaches are fabulously disparate, with LaMongo's perverse pop/trash culture references contrasting with Brueggemann's  more precise meditations on disappointment, desire and death.

The final results of the duo taking their lines for a walk have now been collected in a single volume and I'm utterly proud to have been asked to write the commentary for the book (*below). My own text - in the true spirit of misunderstanding which drove the original concept - was written in English and translated (badly) via online translation engines. The book was beautifully designed by another Bielefeld artist, Jana Topel.

The limited print run of Irgendjemand liebt dich immer is available to buy via the new Edition Guillotine website (which, incidentally, will be publishing more volumes by both these and other primarily German and Austrian artists in the coming year), for the ridiculously small price of €25 (plus p&p).

Get it while it's hot!

Edition Guillotine website:
Edition Guillotine on FaceBook:

Text for the book: They say opposites attract. What they (whoever they are) don’t tell you is that opposites often create a considerable amount of friction: friction that can cause the white heat of creativity, or just the dark, dense, deadening force of confusion. You hold in your hands the evidence for this: Brueggemann and La Mongo: together they fight not crime, but mediocrity. This is no match made in heaven, but a fighting  partnership bursting with demonic force, erotic displacement and tasteless truth-telling. And it’s great.

Like Chinese whispers, the pair’s dialogue - initially conducted long distance via the internet - is rife with misunderstanding and often (unintended) hilarious wrong-turns. Spurred on by the other’s phrases, they often seem to wilfully disregard any obvious interpretation. Instead we see the alchemy of misrepresentation and the occult science of nonsense, raised to the level of the profound. 

Let’s face it: they got lucky.

This doesn’t mean to say that under their own steam these artists wouldn’t deliver the goods. Brueggemann casts a sly linear glance over the world: her wonderful drawings managing the balancing act of being both humorous and sinister. Sexual deviance; death and nature’s indifference all mingle in her worryingly artful pencil and ink work. Meanwhile, La Mongo stuffs his obsessively detailed work with layer upon layer of pop/trash culture references, making psychedelic vortices from the deepest recesses of his mind. It’s all brought to glorious life in felt-tips and forbidden imagery. 

But, when put together, what do we get? A hilarious, weird juxtaposition of the precise with the messy; the childish with the ancient; the good, the bad and the ugly. Don’t say you weren’t warned…

At the planning stage this meeting of minds and temperaments would look disastrous, but, ironically, on paper it works perfectly. This book is the wreckage following the car crash between Westfalia and Vienna. An autopsy of how not to get along. La Mongo and Brueggemann: they may fight mediocrity, but they’re no longer speaking to each other…

Happy New Year!

And we're back...

2014 is DEAD - long live 2015!!!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Lousy Song, Great Solo #4

By 1977 English art-pop perfectionists, 10cc, were in crisis. Actually, they weren’t just in a crisis, they were fucked. The only thing was: they didn’t know it. 

Famously 10cc were born from the ashes of nascent careers writing hits for the Hollies and Yardbirds (Graham Gouldman), paying dues with Wayne Fontana (Eric Stewart had actually sang lead on The Mindbenders' biggest hit, 'Groovy Kind Of Love') or just being jobbing session players and studio rats (Kevin Godley and Lol Creme). Following a reasonably lucrative period running Strawberry Studios in Stockport and masterminding other faux-bands' singles, as well as a minor hit as Hotlegs (with 'Neanderthal Man'), the band were signed to Jonathan King's UK label, given a questionable new name and they were off. 

The next four years had seen them put into effect what was almost a masterplan of pop strategy, moving them from cheeky chart contenders to album conceptualists. Their self-titled debut album's parodies laid their stall out with aplomb. It was full of 50's pastiches such as 'Johnny Don't Do It' or 'Donna' and the censor-baiting rockers such as 'Rubber Bullets' while displaying a fearsome grasp of studio trickery. Here was a band that not only had the ironic detachment of, say, Steely Dan (a band with whom 10cc are most often compared, both bands having learned their trade via the '60s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley on either side of the Atlantic) but also the smarts to make top 40 gold out of what was far more grown-up fare than that of contemporaries such as say, Slade or Gary Glitter. The following year's album, Sheet Music, saw the pastiches jettisoned and the band truly find their own sound. What was effectively a pair of duos combined Godley and Creme's cerebral love of art rock and musicals with Gouldman and Stewart's ear for an irresistible tune. sardonic, knowing hits 'Wall Street Shuffle' and 'Silly Love' rubbed shoulders with hilarious deconstructions of the ridiculous trade in which they worked such as 'The Worst Band In The Word' ('Never seen the van, leave it to the roadies, never seen the roadies, leave 'em in the van') or 'Old Wild Men' (possibly the first song to conceive of rock stars ageing), while third world politics and terrorism, were also fair game to these clever boys. 

Of course the following year's Original Soundtrack contained THAT SONG and the world now seemed theirs for the taking. However the cracks were beginning to show. The differing approaches of the two pairs was becoming more obvious with Godley and Creme's post-modernism ('The Film Of My Love' or the overlong tri-part 'Une Nuit A Paris') sounding at odds with Gouldman and Stewart's more straightforward rock and pop craftsmanship. It was still a fantastic album, however, and by 1976's How Dare You! these cracks seemed less apparent, to the point that the album could stand as their masterpiece, containing suites in miniature like 'I'm Mandy Fly Me', 'Art For Art's Sake' or 'Don't Hang Up'. But in the studio the four had reached breaking point and Godley and Creme headed for the hills (and a future in video pioneering) holding their art school credentials high and leaving the remaining duo to wonder whether to carry on as 5cc.

The unfortunate decision was to draft tour drummer, Paul Burgess as a full-time member, recruit some other fine session players and soldier on. The sense that Gouldman and Stewart did this just to show the quitters just how much they didn't need them is borne out by later interviews. Both parties now admit culpability with Godley and Creme admitting that maybe they could have gone off to make the overblown Consequences album (ostensibly a triple album vehicle to advertise their patented Gizmotron guitar tool which was hamstrung by a little too much self-indulgence and weed) and simply brought the resulting lessons learned back to be used by 10cc, Gouldman and Stewart meanwhile found it impossible to sanction any hiatus by the others while they were at the peak of their earning powers. Ah, foolish youth…

But be quiet, big boys don't cry; this lengthy back story serves as a scene setting for what came next: the truly awful Deceptive Bends album. Although by no means a total disaster (especially when compared to the following studio album, Bloody Tourists which contains 'Dreadlock Holiday'. The world's most racist hit? You tell me…). Obviously Graham and Eric weren't dunces, and their ear for a hit hadn't deserted them, but somehow without the worldly cynicism of Kevin and Lol they had to rely on their own more forced sense of humour. Deceptive Bends contains ten of the cleverest, most slickly produced cuts, but somehow it's a joyless affair. Just compare 'I'm Not In Love' from two years previously with 'The Things You Do For Love'. or 'People In Love'. The sly irony has vanished and instead it's replaced by something utterly impressive and yet lifeless.

But worst of all was the lead track which when released in 1977 made it to number 5 in the UK charts: 'Good Morning Judge'.

For starters, there are the lyrics, concerning what Allmusic describes as 'a career criminal'.  Let's have a look at the first verse: 
Well good morning Judge, how are you today?
I'm in trouble, please put me away
A pretty thing took a shine to me
I couldn't stop her, so I let it be (repeat three times) etc.

So in the very first verse our 'hero' is admitting to what exactly? It sounds suspiciously like an 'ironic' reference to either sexual assault or under age sex to me (good grief, what was I saying about Gary Glitter?), especially when you examine the following verse's reference to a car theft ('I found a car but I couldn't pay. I fell in love so I drove it away').


Riding on a jaunty beat that  drives home the repeated refrain at the end of each verse, it also contains what by now had become the band's stock in trade, the doubling of lead vocal with a bass voice an octave underneath. In other words, with this, the first song of a post-split 10cc, the band have begun to parody themselves. If this isn't warning enough, the stand-in for a chorus ('I didn't do it, i wasn't there' etc…) sounds like the pair are making excuses for their own musical crimes.

And yet, at the end of each verse there's something strange happening. Eric's ultra-nimble slide guitar which had appeared in the middle section of the previous year's 'I'm Mandy, Fly Me' reappears to make a startling little interjection before droning up the fretboard and away. Clearly the chops hadn't deserted them. And, as if that wasn't frustrating enough, at the 1'31'' mark the slide returns to usher in perhaps Eric's finest moment: a solo that manages to combine Bakersfield with a call-and-response chickenwalk and blows your head away, all before the 1'58'' mark when it gives way to a bottom end riff (again, merely reiterating the band's superior earlier work) that signals a return to the laugh-free irony fest.   

It's doubly annoying here because not only is it a blinding solo - perhaps one of my top five of all time despite its brevity (or maybe because of it) - but also because it resides in a completely shit song that objectifies women, trivialises crime (Rubber Bullets at least knew it was springing from a tradition that included 'Cell Block Number Nine' or 'Jailhouse Rock') and, worst of all, was catchy as hell.

To be fair, at the age of 16/17 I thought it was very clever and loved it to death. But age, wisdom and a heavy heart now lead me to cringe every time I hear it. All except for those scant 25-odd seconds of six-string heaven in the middle...