Ry Cooder. The Very Thing That Makes You Rich…

Ry Cooder has been on my musical radar for over 40 years. His work with Captain Beefheart on “Safe As Milk” shattered the blues-rock template & produced a sound which was primal & from the future. He accompanied Mick Jagger on the soundtrack of the film “Performance”. “Memo From Turner” is a classic song which matched the brooding, erotic psychedelia of this marvellous film. His first solo LP, released at the end of 1970, was dominated by covers of traditional blues songs which were unfamiliar even to those listeners who thought they knew their blues. Over the years Ry has released many records, some are of the highest quality, others have brought musical styles from around the world to a new audience. His reputation as a premier guitarist is assured. All his LPs include songs and music which rewards repeated listening.

Now there is a brand new record “Election Special”, his commentary on the up-coming US Presidential election. Ry pins his colours to the mast from the opening track “Mutt Romney’s Blues”, a song from the perspective of the presidential prospect’s pet involved in a bizarre incident in 1983. Here is the fine song and the interesting video.

On a family holiday the Romney family drove for 12 hours with their dog on the roof of their car. The pet was in a carrier with a windshield. After some time the dog’s piss and shit was leaking down the side of the car. Romney stopped, washed down the car and the dog then continued the journey. Mitt’s seeming lack of common sense & an unconvincing defence of his behaviour has been interpreted as a “valuable window into how Romney operates. In everything the guy does, he functions on logic, not emotion”. (Neil Swidey, The Boston Globe)

“Election Special” covers a wide range of issues. The financial crisis, war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo &, in “Kool Aid”, the unquestioning belief  of parts of the electorate (the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” references the Jonestown massacre”). The songs are not general calls to arms but use characters affected to voice the views. “Cold Cold Feeling” is Barack Obama singing his blues in the White House. It is Cooder’s most overtly political work and, of course, he has been accused of bleeding heart liberalism by critics of his viewpoint.

I feel that this record is noteworthy because there is a lack of involvement with politics in current music. It is not likely that a 65 year old protest singer will have any great effect on the election but it is, at least, an attempt to connect the single issues of opposition in 2012. There is a general dissatisfaction with politics and politicians but no unity of these feelings. To see and hear someone I respect attempt to make such connections is a good thing.

Cooder has always had an affinity with the songs of the Depression era. His early records included not only songs by the poet-laureate of the times, Woody Guthrie, but other wonderful tunes which deserved a wider hearing. He has adapted the Popular Front approach of the 1930s and the style of the songs in his new music (all original compositions) to link contemporary issues. An unlikely protest singer perhaps but “Election Special” is a continuation of concerns which Cooder has been dealing with in more recent years.

“No Banker Left Behind” from his last LP “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down” (great title) channels the spirit and style of Woody Guthrie to illuminate the financial crisis. It sounds like one of the songs he lifted from the 30s catalogue. “Pull Up” and a trilogy of albums about the Latino presence in California had all taken an anti-authoritarian stance on socio-political issues. There is though no po-faced preachifying about his work. The sardonic humour of Guthrie, of the R & B songs he so loves, is an integral and entertaining part of his musical updates.

This final track is from “Election Special”. It directly addresses the billionaire Koch brothers who ride roughshod over environmental violations with the best lawyers money can buy. They use their money to support Romney and to promote libertarian right-wing policies. The song is a re-writing of the “Cross Road Blues” of Robert Johnson. The “prairie town of  Wichita” being the headquarters of Koch Industries. It is, said Ry, “the only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan.” It is, also, a terrific song and has been my tune of choice since I  first heard it last week.

It is rare for me to show such enthusiasm for brand new music. There is enough good music about for me not to be too concerned with new releases.In 5 months time Ry Cooder may have been shown to be out of touch with the electorate of his country. In 5 years he may be seen to be ahead of his time and a coherent alternative to the policies of the two main political parties will have emerged. For myself it is a pleasure to see an artist I have admired for so long producing work which entertains and shows a conscience and an anger about the way things are. that’s the kind of music I was raised on.

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Those 70s Movies (Part Four).

Punishment Park (1971)

director: Peter Watkins.

The most personal of my choices, “Punishment Park” never received a general release and, like other Watkins’ films was pretty much buried. It is now available on You Tube and I was delighted to be able to view it again recently. His earlier film, “The War Game”, made for the BBC and about a nuclear attack on the UK, had been banned. Over 10 years later the film was still relevant but could only be seen in local community centres and church halls. How effective, how true does a movie have to be for authorities to not want us to see it ?

“Punishment Park” is a similar documentary style (I refuse to use the prefix “pseudo”) projection into a dystopian near future. It posits a reaction to the counter- culture by the authorities whereby, after a tribunal, those arrested are given the option of prison or going to Punishment Park, an area in the desert where those who choose have to travel 50 miles to the American flag pursued by the National Guard. The film intercuts between a group in the desert and the tribunal for the following group.

It is obviously a political film. Watkins has an agenda and pulls no punches in showing which side of the fence he stands. It is this “fence”, the polarization of American society in the late 1960s, which is shown more effectively than in any film I have ever seen. The absence of any mutual understanding between the two opposing groups is repeatedly made. The treatment of the black activist at the tribunal seems crass and ridiculous yet mirrors the treatment of Bobby Seale who was bound and gagged in the courtroom during the trial of the Chicago 7. There is always an element of “this could happen” about this movie which makes it so compelling. A monotone English voice coldly narrates adding a veracity to the images.

Seeing “Punishment Park” again is not like watching a view from another time. The same polarization exists today, the potential for oppression remains. The arguments are the same and the film is still relevant. The style is also wonderfully modern. The rapidity of the editing , the hand held shots, the involvement of the film makers as the events unfold bring to mind the films of Nick Broomfield, “Man Bites Dog”, even “The Hurt Locker. The legacy of music video on cinema is the eye-blinking speed of cuts between shots. Watkins uses this so effectively that it is difficult to believe that the film is 40 years old.

On leaving the cinema in 1972 a friend asked if we had just watched a documentary. We were surprised at his reaction but this reflects no deception on the part of the film-maker rather how effective his methods had been. A film which still provokes thought, discomfort and anger after all this time.

Taxi Driver (1976)

director: Martin Scorsese. starring: Robert de Niro.

“Taxi Driver” is the director’s first major, big budget, movie. He had made good films previous to this and “Mean Streets” is a great one. The later film nicks it because it is a more collaborative and thus more structured film than the labour of love that is “Mean Streets”. Scorsese even had a bona-fide movie star in the lead role after his boy De Niro’s turn as the young Vito Corleone in “Godfather 2”. Robert was on a roll which brought us “1900”, “The Last Tycoon”, back with Martin for “New York, New York” and then “The Deer Hunter”. (Blimey, I have missed some quality movies from this list of 10). The script, by Paul Schrader, a man as driven as the director, was a ready rolled portrait of alienation and it’s consequences. Scorsese gave notice of his intentions to make a film about urban and personal claustrophobia by employing Bernard Herrmann to score the film. Herrmann had written the music for Hitchcock’s great run of 50s classics. He wrote the music for “Citizen Kane” for Christ’s sake. This was to be his final work.

Travis Bickle, our hero, is a man estranged from the world around him. He wants to make connections but is unable to. He hates the world he sees through the  windscreen and in the back seat of his cab. When he tries to make connections he meets the platitudes of fellow driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) or fails through his own social inadequacy with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). He is, in his own words, “God’s lonely man”.

The film’s progression to the violent climax is perfectly pitched. Bickle tenses as Tom (Albert Brooks) tries to move him along and you just know that the Vietnam vet could do some real damage here. The destruction of his TV is as funny as hell. When Travis shows up at a political rally sporting a mohican it is obvious that it is all over for him and for whoever gets in his way. The involvement with a teenage prostitute, Iris, (Jodie Foster) and her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) inevitably ends in violence because Bickle is, by this time, too far gone.

Scorsese with “Taxi Driver” brought the urban cinema of Hitchcock, Kazan, Lumet and others into the modern age. He paved the way for Tarentino and Ferrera to make their provocative films. More than any director he was aware of cinema history and, I think, it was no accident that he did this. “Taxi Driver” is a modern film. Every year in the USA there are shocking murders such as the Columbine shootings. This film forewarned of these events and explains the psychology of the disturbed loners who commit them.Travis only ends as a “hero” because society will always interpret violence to suit it’s own ends. A great, GREAT film.

As a change of tone here is Michel Gondry’s “sweded” version. (see “Be Kind, Rewind).

Those 70s Movies (Part Three)

Nashville (1975)

director: Robert Altman. starring: a cast of 100s

This film was promoted as the movie of the Bicentennial, celebrated in 1976. Altman had not really had a box office hit since M.A.S.H. but his subsequent work (especially “McCabe & Mrs Miller”) is of high quality & received critical acclaim. While there is, undoubtedly, a political dimension to “Nashville” I feel that further viewing reduces the impact of the political campaign (the fictional Replacement Party) & emphasizes the real strength of the film, the development of a large range of characters as their stories intertwine.

Altman had been developing his style of film-making for some time. A large cast, all with a story, the use of overlapping imagery and dialogue aimed for a more naturalistic film. He used a repertory company of actors & some of these appear in the film. Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Michael Murphy and Shelley Duvall worked with the director on numerous occasions & knew how it worked. A number of fine character actors are employed  in stronger parts than they were usually. In all cases they delivered one of the most memorable performances of their careers.

Set in the hermetic world of country music (the actors, along with Richard Baskin, wrote their own songs) and a slightly sprawling 160 minutes long. The appeal of the film is the assured & fascinating way the director balances all the stories and produces a coherent and provocative entertainment from such a large ensemble. It is an admirable achievement. The last two films I wrote about are damned near perfect. “Nashville” is not, I think, perfect but is an outstanding example of the work of a director who, along with his acolytes, produced some of the best American cinema of the 1970s.

A final word about the fine cast. The great Ned Beatty, Allen Garfield, the luminous Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakely (a musician who had hardly acted before), Henry Gibson (stranded since Laugh-In) and Barbara Harris all contribute to the quality of the film. Harris, in particular, is enchanting. I now watch the original of “Freaky Friday” whenever it is on TV because her performance in “Nashville” confirms her quality as an actress of note.

Here’s the trailer for “the damnedest thing you ever saw”. It checks for more actors than I have mentioned and may confuse you further. Great films can be confusing…it’s OK.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

director: Milos Forman. starring: Jack Nicholson.

How can I do this film justice ? A favourite novel, a favourite actor and a director who, from his debut in the US, looked up to the job. I went to the cinema to see it on the day it opened and went again on the next weekend. It has remained a benchmark for how cinema can provoke, intrigue and entertain. A truly satisfying experience and proof that popular art does not have to condescend to reach a large audience.

The film of the book was a long time coming. There are extensive changes to the original source and the end result is stronger for them. Jack Nicholson as the rugged individualist, McMurphy, is no less than spectacular. His confrontations with the authorities in the mental asylum and his relationship with the inmates alternately delight and depress. The introduction of McMurphy’s unfocused energy into the bleak asylum aggravates his fellows into such memorable action. Christopher Lloyd, Danny de Vito, Will Sampson and others all contribute but none more than Brad Dourif as the stuttering Billy Bibbit. His final attack on the monstrous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) seems so justified that the audience is willing a murder to happen.

Milos Foreman and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, created a film which can be bleak and depressing but, ultimately delights and uplifts. There are, sometimes broad strokes used about complicated issues but it is still story telling of the highest quality. Ah, you must have seen this anyway.

Here is the film’s theme by the composer Jack Nitzche, a man of equal quality to the others involved.

Those 70s movies (Part Two)

Chinatown (1974)

director: Roman Polanski. starring : Jack Nicholson.

I always hesitate to pin the label “film noir” (always a problematic definition) on to anything made after the the early 1950s. Whether an homage, a pastiche or a genuine attempt to add to the genre the end result, invariably, is “noirish” or “neo-noir” & those are two things that we really don’t need. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” satisfies all the necessary criteria to be film noir. It then adds layers of modernity which place the film firmly in the vanguard of ground-breaking 1970s cinema.

Released at the height of Watergate a story of paranoia, conspiracy & political corruption, though set in the 1940s would always resonate with the contemporary mood of the USA. Robert Towne’s script, the most celebrated in Hollywood, is a seamless mix of the cinematic & literary. It is a private dick story nuanced by the faction which passes for  history in Los Angeles. A combination which has served the novelist James Ellroy so well in recent years. It is to Polanski’s credit that he took such a rich source & in the process of transferring it to the screen more than matched it’s quality.

Jack Nicholson had played notable parts before Jake Gittes but the private detective is his breakthrough into the mainstream. Gittes is Bogart cynical but not Bogart tough. It is an emotional & moral involvement which keeps him on the twisted trail of the amoral, even evil, Noah Cross, played to perfection by John Huston. No film about L.A. can avoid self-reference (& reverence). The sublime example in “Chinatown” is an attack on Gittes which leaves him with a dressing on his nose and a resemblance to Donald Duck ! The thug who inflicts the wound is played by Polanski himself. There are few finer examples in Hollywood of a director letting the audience know who is in charge & that he knows what he is doing.

I am not going to analyse the labyrinth of “Chinatown”‘s plot. It is enough to say that the film has an almost unsurpassed coherence of script, direction & cast pitched perfectly to deliver a complex package which satisfies on all levels. Polanski has never again worked so closely with the Hollywood film industry. It is a pity because this remains his masterpiece & there may have been others to follow.

The Godfather (1972)

director: Francis Ford Coppola. starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duval.

Coppola’s saga about the Corleone family has become so ubiquitous that it would be facetious of me to attempt any original thought about this film. I would just like to endorse the following idea. When the most visible of the “movie brats” were given an opportunity to direct big budget movies they reached back to their childhood for inspiration. Spielberg took a giant rubber shark and he really made his mark with an inflated B picture. Lucas parlayed his infatuation for the space and adventure serials of his youth into more money than you can shake a stick at with Star Wars and Indy. Childish or child-like ? You make your own choice. What is indisputable is that these films opened the door to the mega-buck blockbuster which has come to so dominate the industry.

Some 8 years older than these two, Coppola looked to the gangster films of his own youth. Edward G Robinson, James Cagney & Bogart had become stars in these tough guy roles but there had not been a “proper” Hollywood mob movie for some time. “Point Blank” was made there but looked to Europe for it’s style. The French, they made a heap of gangster flicks in the 60s. Francis, like us all, had seen these films on TV. We were shocked by the violence & loved the anti-heroes even if the got their just desserts in the end. He did not want to make a film for big kids. He made a mob movie for modern times charting the transition from concepts of  honour and respect to a more cruel and rational outlook. In doing so he created an epic which exposed America as mich as it did the Cosa Nostra.

He got Brando, who appeared to have given up, to give one more scintillating performance, dominating any scene in which he appears with his quiet authority. An ensemble of ready for prime time young guns all took their chance as the next generation of Corleones. The contrasting characters of these four adds a depth to this film that few others can emulate. A word too for Nino Rota’s score which gives credence to the director’s claim for an operatic influence.

“The Godfather” is entertainment for adults, you know those people who now take their kids to the cinema to see the new Pixar construct and hope that they have been included. Coppola tried always to make this sort of intelligent film and, on a few occasions he succeeded. If  this film had failed there would have been no “Apocalypse Now”, no “Goodfellas”, no “Reservoir Dogs”. He took the 1930s blueprint for a tough guy movie, resuscitated it and added plenty of flourishes which have become a new blueprint. A high water mark in American cinema.

The clip is 17 seconds long…you have time for that.

Those 70s Movies (Part One)

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) 

director : Werner Herzog. starring : Klaus Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski together produced a body of work which is the jewel of the flourishing 1970s German cinema (whatever happened to the German film industry ?). They made great films but “Aguirre” is the greatest of them. A film about power, hierarchy, obsession, the veneer of civilization & culture, greed & madness.  Filmed on location in South America the beauty, power & wildness of Nature is combined with an almost verisimilitude of the conquistador experience.

From the opening shot, showing the painstakingly slow progress of the expedition across the alien Andes, the cinematography continues to stun. The scenes on the rafts seem impossible to be choreographed yet perfectly mirror the increasing loss of control of the protagonists. The descent of Aguirre is a more measured & nuanced performance by Kinski than other Herzog movies in which he appeared. I have seen this film within the past year. I wondered if it retained it’s naturalness, it’s directness of exposition which i found awe-inspiring & unique. No worries, great art has a permanence that time has little affect upon.

The soundtrack, by Popol Vuh, must be mentioned. It is their first of many for Herzog & ranks with any of the outstanding soundtracks in cinema. I have added the German trailer for the movie because the idea of a dubbed Klaus Kinski is just wrong. Don’t worry if you cannot understand the dialogue, the audacity & originality of the filming will make you want to see more.

 

 

Amarcord (1973)

director: Federico Fellini.

A film about Fellini’s own memories of childhood which combines truth and it’s imagined form so accurately, poignantly & hilariously that it becomes universal. A series of inter-connected vignettes about growing up in Rimini in the 1930s with no plot,  “Amarcord” is not only the first on my list of films of the 70s but is, in my opinion, the masterpiece of cinema. The film contains all the elements which we have come to call “Felliniesque”. There are set pieces which are tours de force, grotesques, images which are, once seen, indelible. It is the energy & the ebullience of the story-telling which sets this film apart from others.

A peacock in the snow. The all-enveloping tobacconist. The voluptuous town whore. The arrival in the bay of an awe-inspiring ocean liner (the blind man asking for more descriptive detail) are all unforgettable. Personally the family outing where the mad, sexually frustrated uncle climbs a tree to shout of his need is imagination transferred to celluloid as perfectly as has ever been achieved. It is the family in the film which provides the core to the film. In turn exuberant, tragic and human. Fellini, aided by his cinematographer, Guiseppe Rotunno & his composer, Nino Rota, have created a work where sentiment, flamboyance and nostalgia (often used as criticisms of the director) are integrated into life in a way that they really are. This is a film with heart. A heart which is absolutely in the right place. Not since “La Strada” had he charmed us so much with his characters.

No trailer is needed for this film. If you read this and you are interested in films then grab the first copy you see.

Federico Fellini Picture

Ten Great Movies From the 1970s.

When I started this blog I always intended to write about cinema. There are movies which have affected and influenced me as much as my favourite LPs. My first attempts are stuck in the draft stage or have been trashed. I don’t want to be a film critic, we have enough of those. I know that a degree of context is required but I want to transmit how movies can affect the viewer intellectually and emotionally. Sticking to the facts is proving to be too arid. I will stick at it until I get it right (or right enough).     

Here, in alphabetical order are 10 films from the 1970s which I consider to be the best from a Golden Age of film-making.I am aware that in all fields of the arts you can favour that which were revelatory to your younger self. I have seen all these movies countless times and continue to be enchanted by them.  Any of the directors of these films could have dominated my list. I have restricted my choice to the one I consider to be the greatest of their work in this decade.                                                                                                                                    

Aguirre, Wrath of God Poster   Aguirre, Wrath Of God             Amarcord      Amarcord Poster

Chinatown Poster    Chinatown                              The Godfather    The Godfather Poster

Nashville Poster Nashville One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Poster

 Punishment Park Poster   Punishment Park                           Taxi DriverTaxi Driver Poster

                        That Obscure Object of Desire Poster  That Obscure Object of Desire  

The Man Who Fell to Earth Poster  The Man Who Fell To Earth   

Ok, there are 10 wonderful movies. They all deserve more than just being included in a list so that’s me for this week then. I do not have to justify my choice but do feel that I should write further about them to do them justice.

 

The One and The Only Ones.

Peter Perrett has stubbornly remained a cult figure on the British musical scene. The one song of his that has reached a wider audience needed the endorsement of a mobile phone company to extend it’s shelf life. I’m not sure that people who know the song from the commercial know the band who performed it or the guy who wrote it.In 1980 three of us lived on the top floor of a house in Deptford, South London, (living the dream !). Perrett and his group, The Only Ones, along with the Fall, provided the soundtrack to that year. The acerbity of both bands accompanied those early-Thatcher years. If we were gonna meet the 80s head on then we were going to have to toughen up.

The Only Ones released three LPs. “Another Girl Another Planet”, a new wave/pop punk anthem, got them noticed but was not a big hit. The song became somewhat of a millstone. They recorded songs the equal of this but big old jaunty anthems about a relationship with heroin were never their stock-in-trade. There was, rather, a laconic, fatalistic theme to the songs. Perrett, a heroin addict, accepted the weakness of taking a moral stance about others and about living while choosing such a destructive lifestyle. “I’m in love with extreme mental torture. I’m in love with the way you hold your head and cry. I’m in love with all these affairs of the heart” . (No Peace for the Wicked). Perrett chronicled the machinations and manipulation of a relationship better than anyone. In “Trouble In the World” he wrote, “If you do happen to be stronger. It only means you take longer to go under”. The mix of romanticism, cynicism and contempt was the perfect riposte to a decade marked by individualism and ego at the expense of communality.

The group were standing still and facing diminishing returns by 1981. The drug problems within the band were certainly not helping. On the 8th of March we went to the Lyceum in Central London to say our goodbyes at their final gig. They had played the same venue just the year before. It was a great night. The set they played felt like a greatest hits only there were no hits. On the final night they opened with ” A.G.A.P” and “Trouble in the World”. I remember thinking that in some parallel universe it was these songs and the Ramones singles which were toppermost of the poppermost. At the time our drug of choice for a Sunday night gig was L.S.D. (not as strong in 1981 as it was ten years earlier). I got a little down that I was watching this top band for the last time. After the storming opening Perrett told us all not to be sad about it. OK Peter, whatever you say. Susceptible to suggestion whilst under the influence of hallucinogenics…who me ? It was a memorable night. Every song we wanted to hear got played. “Another Girl” got played again and that was it.

It was indeed it for 13 years. Perrett retreated to his home in Forest Hill (just down the road from me) and into his addiction. He showed out irregularly if a junkie friend had a gig. There was an album of demos. We had a bootleg from Amsterdam which got extensive play but really we were left with the three LPs. It was not until 1994 that he began to gig again with a new band, The One. He had been invisible for so long, the band received little coverage. I completely missed the LP, released in 1996. If it weren’t Britpop in 1996 then you did not get to hear it. I have only recently come to appreciate the quality of the “Woke Up Sticky” LP. The 21st century re-union did not interest me. As I heard more of The One I could hear some great Perrett songs and it was 20 years since there had been new ones to listen to.

I love this clip. Peter got cleaner (clean would be going too far) to promote the album. He is looking well, he has a fine new song to play and a good band to play it. There is a trace of a smile on his face throughout the performance which is so good to see. The nudge of encouragement to Jay, the guitarist, is a sign that all is going better than expected. Perrett always liked a classy rock guitarist on his songs. The music, because of this, is maybe less direct or unconventional than his peers. Me ? I think it makes the songs classic and timeless. Watching this video cheers me that Peter got it together enough to do the new song justice. The second clip from the LP is still outstanding but less cheering.

The second fantastic song from the album.Darker than “Woke Up” but a perfect Perrett lyric about a relationship heading for the rocks & little to be done about it. There is love in his songs but it’s usually concerning the difficulty of being so close to another human being rather than a hearts and flowers romanticism.

It is obvious that he is back, at least, on the pipe by the time this was filmed. The shots of him lip-synching with the band look almost unusable. he has said that he smoked crack to prevent returning to heroin but then did both. Hey, it’s not a shock, he is a junkie, it’s what they do. The One could not continue with Peter in this state. We were not to see him again until the Only Ones re-union on the back of the phone ads. The money had bought him a new set of teeth, sunglasses to hide the 30 years of abuse. However his South London, Bowiesque, drawl was shot and his voice sounded like he was on helium.

I rate Peter Perrett alongside people like Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers and Robyn Hitchcock. He is one of the great British renegades. At that final gig it occurred to me that maybe too many of his fans were too out of it to do things like go to a gig. His junkie outlook, his tough love has always seemed authentic to me. His cynical take on life and everything that goes with it was articulated perfectly and he found some damn fine musicians to help him along the way. In a way I don’t really want him to be re-discovered, re-evaluated and regurgitated. I’m happy enough to re-visit the LPs and to get to know those few songs he came up with in the missing years.

olympic memories moscow 1980

There had been a boycott by some nations in 1976. The USA decided not to attend these Games because of, ironically, Soviet incursion in Afghanistan.  The 70s had seen an effective British boycott of contact with South Africa and the Tory government were in favour of non-attendance. It was left to the athletes to decide and very few of them stayed away.

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This is the winner of the pole vault, Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz of Poland. He was competing against the local favourite Volkov and the partisan crowd were not keeping quiet during his jumps. Kozakiewicz had the day of his sporting life and broke the world record. On landing his jump he let the crowd know what he thought of them by giving the crooked elbow salute. “Kozakiewicz’s Gesture” as it became known was also interpreted as a protest by the Eastern European against the Soviet Union and the Russians did protest that his medal should be withheld because of the perceived insult. In a world where soundbites by so many sportsmen and women are so asinine and platitudinous it’s just good to see someone showing their emotions in such an individual way.

It was a toss up whether I would include the Steve Ovett/Seb Coe rivalry in 1980 or in 1984. There is another British hero across both these Olympics and he will get the next one. The 100m is now regarded as the blue riband event of athletics.  British fans  had grown up with the stories of the first 4 minute mile by Roger Bannister, helped by an outstanding generation of middle distance runners. We saw the “metric mile”, the 1500m as the glamour event.

Britain had 2 outstanding athletes at this distance. They were not just rivals but very different personalities. Ovett was more extrovert. He had won the European Championships easing up and waving to the crowd. He sometimes grew a scruffy beard, a bit of an outsider. Coe had a purple patch a year later in 1979. He set 3 new world records in 41 days. He was a trim, smart polite boy. Even before he entered politics he was the poster boy for the new Thatcherite  Britain. Your mum loved Sebastian and your mates were for Ovett. It really was split like that. However, if Ovett was to succeed at the Olympics then he was gonna have to raise his game.

Steve was favourite for the longer distance, Seb for the 800m. In fact they won a gold medal each but in their less favoured events. This was only the 2nd time they had actually raced each other and they certainly did not appear to be the friendliest of team mates.

There was a 3rd British competitor in the 1500m final. Steve Cram had to aim high if he was to be even a worthy 3rd best. By 1983 he was the World Champion. It was an amazing time for British middle distance running where we had the 3 best in the world. However they did not run against each other very often. We would go to Crystal Palace and watch all 3 win separate races with world class turns of speed. I’m sure that the egos of the protagonists got in the way. Maybe now with the benefit of hindsight they regret that they did not bring the best out of each other in more races.

Coe, Sebastian

In 1984 I hoped to see the above image into the last bend of the 1500m final. It was not to be. Ovett had respiratory problems and failed to defend his 800m title. He stepped off the track at the beginning of the last lap. Coe went on to defend his title and Cram won the silver. It really was a golden age for British athletics with medals and world records for all 3. Steve Ovett remains a sporting hero of mine for his ability, his attitude and his cussedness. I would have loved to have had the chance to have bought the man a beer.

olympic memories montreal 1976

In 1976 the concept of perfection in sport was brought into focus during the Montreal Olympics. 4 years previously Olga Korbut had charmed the world with her ability. This time around it was the 14 year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci in the spotlight. She had received the ultimate perfect score of 10 in previous competitions but no competitor had ever done this in the Olympics. The scoreboard manufacturer inquired if 4 digits would be needed and were told that this would not be necessary. Nadia’s score appeared as 1.00 to the initial confusion of the crowd. She went on to score 6 more perfect scores and won 3 gold medals. Gymnastics has always been popular in the USA and Comaneci was the sensation of the Games. Personally I feel that the ability of these teenage muscle girls is admirable but my favourite gymnast of this era remains the Russian Nellie Kim who was older (though only 19 in 1976) more feminine and more graceful so gets a photo here.

The USA boxing team of 1976 is regarded as the strongest team sent by that country to the Olympics. They won 5 gold medals and 4 of these winners progressed to professional world titles. The Spinks brothers, Leon & Michael, had high profile careers but it was Ray Leonard (nicknamed “Sugar”) who caught the eye the most.He became World Champion in 1979 stopping future Hall of Famer Wilfred Benitez. In 1980 he returned to the Montreal Olympic stadium and lost his title to Roberto Duran. He avenged this loss and regained the title just 5 months later in the famous “No Mas” fight. Leonard was the most famous fighter of his generation. In the early 80s I worked in a small warehouse with a young guy who did not seem in the mood on one particular day. I asked if there was a problem and he said that Sugar Ray was appearing at a nearby gym. He really would rather be there than at work. I told him to keep quiet and clear off for a couple of hours, I would cover for him. He was surprised and pleased that I would do that for him. I did not have to make the tea for about 6 weeks !

The 400m and the 800m were both won by a powerful Cuban, Alberto Juantorena. He was the first man to do such a double at these championships. A wonderful natural runner he had only seriously run the longer distance for a year. He set a new world record in this event. Alberto is remembered as a great athlete and for a remark made by the indomitable British commentator, David Coleman who said “Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class !” Oo-er.

olympic memories munich 1972

I’ve got to be honest, real life got in the way of the Olympics in 1972. I had some important exams & went on holiday for a week. I was away from a TV for a few days. I must have watched the athletics. I don’t think my alternative lifestyle went as far as abandoning sport. I was however away for the defining event of the Games.

Black September, a Palestinian cadre, entered the Olympic village and took Israeli athletes hostage killing two people. Their demands were for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel and of the leaders of the German Baader Meinhoff group. Negotiations quickly moved the situation forward and by the evening helicopters were ferrying hostages and kidnappers to an airfield. German authorities never intended to allow the Palestinians to leave the country but the rush to exacerbate the situation had not been conducive to the development of any coherent plan further than killing them. The shoot out went horribly wrong and 17 people died, 11 Israelis, 5 of the Palestinians and a German policeman. The games, suspended for 12 hours, continued.

In the early 1970s radical groups understood the symbolism of gestures which occurred under the scrutiny of the world’s media. Hi-jacks, bombings, robberies and murders became the way these groups publicized their cause. The authorities were slow to react to this threat. There is no greater world wide event than the Olympic Games. The security surrounding the Games is understandable, any incident never mind one as disastrous and as horrible as this massacre is magnified by the intense coverage. Whether the Germans had prior warning of the raid, or were under pressure to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, mistakes were made which caused the death of 11 coaches and athletes.

The women’s athletics were dominated by 3 countries and were disastrous for the USA. USSR, East and West Germany won all the events except one. Heide Rosendahl won 2 golds in the long jump and the relay. She was the local favourite for the pentathlon. It took a new world record to beat her and it was Mary Peters from Northern Ireland who made the record and took the gold. Mary had charmed the Bavarian crowd with her effervescence, her obvious delight in competing before a packed stadium. There were chants of “Mary, Mary” heard as she competed. She charmed our country as well and became Dame Mary Peters within a year. She continued to compete and in retirement became an ambassador for British athletics. This weekend she celebrated the victory of Jessica Ennis, at 73 she looked fit and well and as happy as someone who for two days performed her chosen event better than anyone had ever done.

Precious Mckenzie a diminutive (4ft 9ins) weightlifter was omitted from the South African Olympic team of 1960 because he was the wrong colour. In 1964 he was told he could compete but he must be segregated from the white athletes. He refused to go and left South Africa for Britain. Fast tracked to British citizenship he competed in 3 Olympic Games. He did not win a medal but he did win 3 golds for England in Commonwealth Games. He moved to New Zealand in 1974, winning a fourth gold for them. Precious became a personality during his time in Britain turning up to do things like lift Muhammed Ali in his shoulders. I love this photograph. I hope that after the humiliations brought upon him by the disgusting regime in his home country that he found his adopted country to be a welcoming place. In 2006 he was elected to the South African sport Hall of Fame. Too little too late for a whole generation who suffered I think.