The Gatefolds Our Favourite New Band

OK, from the blog that usually brings you the old music because it’s better than the new music, here is a loosehandlebars exclusive. Joe Brown, the bass player from Bam Bam & the Calling & a sometime guest selector on this thing, has been making some new music. It gets no fresher than this, recorded this month & arriving on the Interweb on the early hours of this morning. Here are the Gatefolds.

The Gatefolds describe themselves as “psychedelic, garage punk, ass-kicking & grudge-holding”. A four piece from Derry, Northern Ireland, “Out of Line” sounds like Elliot Smith with a cool backing band & that’s a good thing. There are 4 tracks to download on their website, just think of what you would like to pay & they are yours to keep.

As soon as a drunken friend of the band points a shaky hand-held phone at them & posts it to Y-tube there will be more about the Gatefolds. You Go Joe !

Life’s An Illusion Love Is The Dream (The Buzzcocks)

On the 8th of December 1989, a Saturday night, the pubs of Brixton were buzzing. We were in the Trinity Arms, tucked away in a quiet square, with friends before rocking down to Electric Avenue to meet the rest of the posse. On the street, in the bars, I met so many people I knew & the talk was of just one thing. The Buzzcocks, a much-loved band had reformed & were playing their first London gig for a very long time. Small groups of people became a crowd as we approached the Brixton Academy. Inside the funky converted cinema there was not a spare seat to be had. A roar greeted the band’s appearance but it was the first chorus of the first song…”these Promises…Whoa-oh-oh…are made for us…Whoa-oh-oh, oh-oh”…when both the audience & the band knew that this was going to be a very special night.

And indeed it was. As we left the show a voice behind me said “I never thought that I would hear….played live”. Here is the song he named.

The Buzzcocks were significant fomenters of a vibrant Manchester punk scene. Fellow students Pete Shelley & Howard Devoto had booked a venue so that the Sex Pistols could play in the city. Unfortunately their own band had no rhythm section & could not play. This & a following gig amalgamated like minds & talents. In January 1977 the band released their EP “Spiral Scratch”, produced by Martin Hannett, on the New Hormones label. The D.I.Y. punk credentials were impeccable, the music was absolutely seminal. The band were on their way despite Devoto deciding to leave the group.

I don’t want to make a list but great songs poured out of the band. “Orgasm Addict” was the best of the Devoto/Shelley songs. In 1978 “What do I Get” was the forerunner to 2 LPs & 2 more 45s. Pete Shelley’s world-weary take on romanticism allied to a youthful confidence that a loud & fast take on motorik German rock just might work made for a heady pop-punk mix. I saw the band play before an adoring home town audience in 1978 & it was all killer no filler…a fine Summer’s day in the park. A week later Devoto joined the Buzzcocks onstage for a ramshackle take on the Troggs.

It was a frantic year for the band. As punk spread from the big cities the ‘cocks were getting more popular. I remember graffiti in London & Birmingham, “I Hate Fast Cars”, “Noise Annoys”…cool. Roger’s lapel badge said “I get no sleep”, mine was a double header “Love” & “Bites”. Then, I guess, there were similar pressures on the band to those felt by the Undertones. What seemed fun 2 years before, a constant touring schedule, being  judged by the snappy singles, started to lose its gloss. Both Pete Shelley & guitarist Steve Diggle became more ambitious about their music and more cynical about a lot more.

The 3rd LP, “A Different Kind of Tension”, is possibly the best of the Buzzcocks’ records but Pete’s disillusionment is plain on an extraordinary Side 2. “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life”,  “Hollow Inside” & “I Believe” are all relentless & disturbing. The boy who’s biggest problem had been falling in love with someone he shouldn’t have fallen in love with was now a man who shouted “there is no love in this world anymore”. Great  music but it did not bode well for the future.

“Tension” was the final Buzzcocks record. The record company were more eager to promote the collection “Singles Going Steady” than finance another LP. They could still make those classic singles but the band called it a day, a pity but no surprise.

“You Say You Don’t Love Me” was Micky & Christine’s song. I had been the best man at their wedding. By 1990 they had separated but were still friends, in fact for the reunion concert they were sat together in the two seats next to me. When this final romance with an ambiguous twist came around I glanced across at them…awkward ? Not a chance, they shared a smile, a kiss & held hands…two lovely people.

Pete made some solo records, good ones. We went to see the “Homosapian” tour because we were fans. What we really wanted was Pete, Steve Diggle, Steve Garvey & the rock solid John Maher charging into those songs they had written between 1976 & 79. It could be dismissed as our own nostalgia for some very carefree times. I prefer to see it as an example of music that has spirit, energy & humour having value at whatever stage of life you are at. The Buzzcocks were a great British band.

What I Like To Do He Doesn’t (The Undertones)

I woke up early…the drinker’s hour…& I was in a chair. That dusty smell was me, I was  wearing my work clothes from yesterday’s hard collar on the construction site, still had my boots on. Another Saturday morning another hangover, I had been here before & knew a couple of things. Going back to sleep was not an option & caffeine would be a good idea. I had crashed where I had dropped, a squat in the Borough, South London. I knew where the kitchen was so I went to search for a kettle. Job done, now what came next ? This was a guys’ flat, if I needed 2 day old pizza crusts or an assortment of mouldy stuff from the fridge then I was in luck. None of the cupboards proffered any promise of coffee, tea or milk. OK, I was not feeling my best but I was a man with a mission.

So, I was doing the Zombie Shuffle towards the nearest supplier of the necessary. London takes longer to wake up at the weekend, the roads were quiet, the pavements quieter. There was just one person walking towards me & as he came into focus I recognised him. It was all I could do to maintain some forward momentum & avoid stumbling into him. The possibility of speech, even the raising of one eyebrow in acknowledgement, was beyond me. Ach ! My excesses had prevented me from meeting the man responsible for this classic tune.

John O’Neill’s wonderful blast of adolescent angst “Teenage Kicks” is now forever linked with the late, great DJ John Peel who died in 2004 & had “teenage dreams are hard to beat” inscribed on his headstone. The Undertones were just a snow-flake in a blizzard of bands making noisy, energetic records.The support of a national radio show helped a great deal but Peel favoured a lot of music which got still little attention. This 5 piece from Derry had got it going on & “Kicks” grabbed you, a  headlong, celebratory charge, absolutely nailing the youthful vehemence of punk. The song was demoed in March 1978, by October of the same year it was on the charts. It was only the start for the band.

The Undertones were just like you pictured them when you got to see them. No World’s End fashion parade here, young scruffs with the singer, Feargal Sharkey, wearing his parka onstage. They reminded me of some earlier upstarts from Northern Ireland, Them, who got the music right & had no truck with any follow fashion monkey business. You were rooting for the Undertones & the eponymous first LP did not disappoint. 14 tracks, half of them under 2 minutes, of joy & honesty. It is allmusic’s review that calls it “flawless” & the band “an Irish Kinks” (see what I did there, I have a new techno trick !)

I am spoiled for choice by the quality of the run of singles released by the band. “You Got My Number” is a personal preference but “My Perfect Cousin” still demands attention after 30 years of loving it. Written by Damien O’Neill & Michael Bradley this slice of family strife (everyone has a Kevin around) with its checks for University Challenge, Subbuteo & the Human League absolutely hits the spot & was the biggest of all their hits. The LPs were great too, packed with songs I can remember just by a glance at the track listings.

The boys were becoming men. They wanted to do a little more than sing about teenage kicks all through the night. In 1981 they performed “It’s Gonna Happen”, a song inspired by the hunger strikes in their home country, on Top of the Pops on the day one of the participants, Bobby Sands, died. John could still deliver those punchy punky romances but he needed to stretch himself. Whether they could take their audience along was not helped by friction within the band between Sharkey & the others. “The Sin Of Pride” was a 4th LP, released in 1983, 4 months later the band disbanded. This last single “Chain of Love” disappeared despite it’s attributes. the Undertones continue to tour today, without Feargal. I have friends who love the band but it is this young gang, the nasal Derry twang, the simple logic of the tunes & lyrics which make the band so recognisable & so enduring.

Well, that chair, from which I had interrupted my stuporous sleep, it was in the residence of Raymond Gorman, guitarist in That Petrol Emotion alongside the O’Neill brothers. He & other friends from Derry felt that John O’Neill & myself would enjoy each other’s company so a meet in a Brixton pub was arranged. Wow, I did get to hang with the writer of “Teenage Kicks” ! We got on like a whole street on fire though his stories about hanging out with R.E.M. topped mine about grafting on a building site.Over the next year we met frequently, it was always a delight to talk & more so to see the Petrols play some brilliant gigs. As we said goodbye in the car park that first night it crossed my mind that this may be the only time I would meet John. I blurted out that, in my opinion, he had written at least 6 of the finest songs I had ever heard. Mmm, how does a modest & talented man react to such effusion ? Oh screw it, I am a fanboy, through & through, I had the chance to tell him & took it. He should know this stuff. It was another Friday night & the beer was winning again !

Hitsville UK (Punk Powerpop)

I was looking around the Y-tube, excavating for 3 examples of British Powerpop from the 1970s. I have always found this label a little nebulous, pub-rock/punk/New Wave/post-punk…it’s such a fine line &  it’s not always worth putting good music under such scrutiny… so much of the pop music that I grew up with was powerful. It needed to be because there was a lot of competition. I do like to exercise some degree of quality control around here so I consulted a man with whom I have shared many musical adventures over many years. I put him on to “Starry Eyes” by the Records, a tune regarded as a Britrock classic in the USA but overlooked over here. The counsel I received was that the cream will rise to the top, that I would find the best songs on “Top of the Pops” not some barely remembered tune that I heard once & immediately forgot. He is Master Po & I am Caine, I’m sure he called me Grasshopper !

In the mid-70s, following the example of Dr Feelgood, bands from Southend found they could pile into a van for a run down the A127/A12 into London to play the pub circuit. R&B vet Lew Lewis & the eclectic Kursaal Flyers were joined by young guns Eddie & the Hot Rods. The boys brought their high energy to some American classics, “96 Tears”, “Get Out of Denver”, “Hard Driving Man”. As punk rock replaced pub-rock the band were well placed. They shared a residency with the 101’ers, they were the headliners at the Marquee when the support band’s set descended into chaos & the Sex Pistols made a name for themselves. Then, in 1977, they had a Top 10 single.

It is a fine one too. “Do Anything You Wanna To Do” is a rousing teenage call to action which sits between Thin Lizzy & the Clash, a pretty good place to be I think. It was written by the band’s Graeme Douglas (like Will Birch of the Records, a former Kursaal Flyer) & the manager Ed Hollis (father of Talk Talk’s Mark). It’s undoubtedly the group’s finest hour & the follow up was a collaboration with Rob Tyner & however great the MC5 are they are hardly mass market. The proper next 45, a re-write, “Quit This Town” was a bit lame. So it’s the live EPs of covers & this fine single for the Rods before they were swept away by the short, sharp shock of the Clash’s first LP after which all the young dudes wanted to be 3 minute heroes.

“Top of the Pops”, July 1979, tucked between Dollar & Supertramp (probably), the Ruts caught that punk wave into the Top 10 with “Babylon’s Burning” their second single. I was soaking up the rays on a Greek beach for 3 months of that Summer & missed Rut-mania. I dismissed the band as punk-by-numbers rabble rousers & I think that I was a little hasty about this. Subsequent 45s “Jah Wars” & “Staring At the Rude Boys” still sound good but it is the first single “In A Rut” (“gotta get out of it, out of it”) which can make a person pogo after a beer too many. A great energetic shout of a song.

This clip from 1980 shows the band to be a fine live act. Singer Malcolm Owen, a strong front man in his Fred Perry, braces & Doc Martens, can only be British. When he pinches Paul Fox’s guitar & carries on with the tune it’s a fine bit of business. Unfortunately Malcolm was troubled by throat problems & a heroin addiction. In July of that year he was found dead & though the band continued, as Ruts DC, a great deal was lost.

Meanwhile up in West Yorkshire, in Leeds, there was a music scene which was producing some fine bands. The Gang of Four (I got a F-book “like” from drummer Hugo Burnham the other week…nice), the Delta 5 & this lot all made a good punky noise.

Now we are talking…The Mekons “Where Were You”, released on Fast Records in 1978 & a brilliant raucous row. From the very start of this you know you are in for a treat. There were 2 LPs of Mekonic clatter with political lyrics. Jon Langford formed The 3 Johns & I spent a very enjoyable evening in a London pub being entertained by this band. The Mekons reformed to play benefits during the 1984 miners’ strike & continued on a cowpunk, even alt-country tip. “Where Were You” was vited the 28th best single of 1978 by the New Musical Express, 29th was “Hard Working Man” by Captain Beefheart. Now that must have been some year for music ! This 7″ single got played a lot round our yard, it stirred us then & it still does so.

If they didn’t have the model trains they wouldn’t have gotten the idea for the big trains. (Christopher Guest)

A constant part of my Friday routine was to drop by my local independent record shop, (remember those, much missed), to lighten the pay packet in my back pocket in exchange for some lovely new vinyl. Graduate Records, later to make some money when they started a little label & signed UB40, sold import American LPs which I could only covet. When they put them all on sale I was stood over the owner’s shoulder waiting to take advantage of his generosity. When I had helped myself to those records I knew I needed I started to take a chance on the ones I hoped that I needed. Here’s a record that I was lucky enough to just stumble upon.

There are supergroups & there is Freud, Marx, Engels & Jung playing “Lemmings Lament” the theme to ” Woodshuck: Three days of Peace, Love & Death”, National Lampoon’s masterly parody of Woodstock. I am not going to ignore the singer Paul Jacobs (classic “Ellen Foley error”, worked with Meatloaf before writing for “Sesame St”) or Alice Playten (well, hello !) but a rhythm section of John Belushi & Chevy Chase does tend to draw the eye. In a few years the whole world would be laughing along with this pair in “Animal House” & “Caddyshack” respectively (Lacey Underall ! Oh my aching sides). The final member is the 5th Baron Haden-Guest of Great Saling, the impetus behind some of the funniest films I have ever seen &, of course, the voice of Stanley, cousin of SpongeBob SquarePants.

“Lemmings” was not only my first exposure to Belushi & the Chevster but in the credits were Doug Kenney, Tony Hendra, P J O’Rourke & Sean Kelly, a generation of American humorists who led the way for the next decade. These guys either burned out or faded away but Christopher Guest is still making great films. Movies which you can see over & over again & still find new funny moments.

I was lucky enough to see “This Is Spinal Tap” in the week it opened in London in 1984. I would watch it tonight if it is on my TV. “The Big Picture”, the first film Guest directed, is a subtle satire of Hollywood. “The Princess Bride” & his turn in “The Long Riders”, a film where siblings played siblings & he was a Ford brother alongside his own brother, kept him around. In 1996  “Waiting For Guffman” established a pattern for 3 subsequent films which set the standard for American comedy in this century. (The 1998  Chris Farley/Matthew Perry movie “Almost Heroes” is now written out of history).

Christopher Guest’s films are improvised character-driven “mockumentaries”. The ensemble cast portray self-obsessed, delusional Americans but there is such a heart to these stories that while the humour is absolutely spot on it is never malignant. “Waiting For Guffman” is about a community theatre in Blaine, Missouri, the “stool capital of the United States”, and their unrealistic hopes for the production of “Red, White & Blaine”. “Stool Boom” celebrates this 3-legged alternative to the chair. Regular players Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, the “always watchable” Parker Posey & Guest himself (playing the director Corky St Clair, ” he can act and he can sing and he can dance. There’s only one other person in the world who can do all that, and that’s Barbra Streisand”) are as delightful as they always are in these movies.

“A Mighty Wind” got the band back together & how great it was to see Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer playing music together. This time around it was not the moronic metal of Tap but the frivolous folk music of the early 1960s when that shit almost caught on. The film centres on a reunion concert featuring 3 folkie blasts from the past &, unsurprisingly, the music is an absolutely perfect parody. It’s a tough choice between the title track, Levy & O’Hara’s “A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow” & this from the one-hit wonders The Folksmen. This simulacrum of a 60s TV show & the line “there’s a nurse on duty if you don’t feel right” clinches it for “Old Joe’s Place”. I wont spoil the movie but the Folksmen were a Kingston Trio copy but continue as a Peter, Paul & Mary deal nowadays !

There has been no film by Christopher Guest & his company since “For Your Consideration” in 2006. It would be a pity if there were no more because these are the only films where we settle down for a new one waiting to see what the cast have for us this time around, knowing that it will be expertly played and similarly be pitch-perfect comedy. No matter, the movies that are already made stand repeated viewing there will always be some business that you missed last time around.

Judge A Song By Its Cover

My new friend & fellow blogger Mr Dave StrangeWorld loves the early music of the Rolling Stones & he likes his 80s rock chicks. So, I hope that this combination of the two is to his liking.

Ellen Foley’s first turn around was on a duet with Meatloaf. For the next few years all the moves she made were a lot cooler than that. “Stupid Girl” is a cover from her first LP “Night Out” (1979) & it’s a spirited charge at the Stones’ song. It’s a pity that the studio band were not playing with her because the sight of Ian Hunter & Mick Ronson, who produced the record, crunching into a Stones riff would be just the ticket. Any chance to hear Ronson play the guitar is one to be taken &, to be honest, is the most interesting thing about this LP.

For Ellen’s next LP “Spirit of St Louis” (1981) her then boyfriend, Mick Jones off of the Clash, took over the production. It is the lost Clash record, the band played on all the tracks & there are 5 Strummer – Jones songs on there. Again that reads better than it sounds but there will be no more Clash LPs so it is worth checking out. Ms Foley tried a little too hard to make it & she never found her own space. Her 3rd, & final record was made back in the USA with Vini Poncia, the man who bore some responsibility for prolonging the career of Kiss. I suppose that after “Sandanista”-era Clash the only way is down.

After that double whammy I will try for the triple. You can reach the Dave’sStrangeWorld blog by hitting the link on my “blogs I follow” list. There you will also find the Pop Goes That Crunch ! blog. Dave & Pop are both admirers of  Alex Chilton, a teenage pop star singer with the mighty Box Tops before forming Big Star, a band that made a wonderful noise that few people bought. Between these two groups Alex hung around Memphis recording studios & experimented with different voices, different sounds. He was still only 19 but had been burned enough by the music business to be cynical beyond his years. These tracks, cut in 1970, were not released until 1996. Some are wryly humorous (“I Want To Meet Elvis”), on others he is drunk (a cover of the Beatles “I’m So Tired”) & then there is “Jumping Jack Flash”.

This is the Big Star sound he was looking for. A combination of drive & melody which evokes the best of 60s British rock but has its own thing going on. The fluidity of Chilton’s guitar work is a thing of beauty & this cover, like the best of the band’s work, makes you go “Oh Boy! This is how it is done”. Every rock music writer ever has said their piece about Big Star. All I want to add is that halfway through their classic songs you go, Whoa ! if only all music was this good. My favourite Stones cover I think.

Chris Farlowe was one of Andrew Loog Oldham’s first signings to his Immediate label. Of the 11 singles he released 5 were Jagger – Richards songs. A driving soul version of “Think”, where Mick can be heard on backing vocals, got his face known before “Out of Time” gave him a UK #1 hit. He was getting first shot at these songs, in some cases releasing them before the Stones versions. Oldham & Jagger were producing his records & he seemed well set. “Ride On Baby” was the follow up to “Out of Time” & it just missed the Top 30. There were some quality singles to follow but it was the groups that carried the swing in 1967. Chris hooked up with Colosseum & Atomic Rooster as a voice-for-hire on the prog-rock scene, he is still around & as leather-lunged as ever.

There are some great Stones covers, Alex Chilton, Merry Clayton’s “Gimme Shelter”, Ike & Tina’s “Honky Tonk Women”. There are the poor ones, Melanie’s “Ruby Tuesday”, Melanie’s “As Tears Go By”. Then there is the catastrophe that is “Wild Horses” by Susan Boyle. These are just 3 random covers of early Stones songs that I hope my new American music-loving friends will enjoy.

Geordie Love Beads (Eric Burdon & the Animals)

Eric Burdon did not hang about after the demise of the original Animals. There were a couple of singles in 1966 which were promoted by a band which was now called Eric Burdon and the Animals even though one, “See See Rider”, was an old track & the other was from a solo LP of covers (3 Randy Newman songs !) backed by the Horace Ott Orchestra (No, me neither). It was in 1967 that a run of distinctive, even sensational, 45s, all composed by this new band, established a new direction for Eric & brought more success.

Eric had some things to get off his chest. About his childhood, “I met my first love at 13, she was brown & I was pretty green” in “When I Was Young” & then his years as a star in “Good Times”, “when I think of all the good times that I’ve wasted having good times”. This direct confessional style, undoubtedly influenced by his use of L.S.D. & patchouli oil, contrasts with the more allusive, even obtuse lyrics of much of the “Love Generation”. Burdon embraced this new emotionality with a lack of guile, an almost naive candour. Back in Northern England 2 teenage boys (drug-free) appreciated such a straightforward reaction to the new ideas from a fellow Northerner. We loved Eric Burdon & the New Animals.

The band were up to the job as well. Vic Briggs’ distorted tremelo (huh !) intro to “When I Was Young” is classic acid-rock. Multi-instrumentalist John Weider went from ragas to rockers. This was a muscular psychedelicism, a working class reaction to new freedoms & new experience. Having said his piece Eric began to write about his hippie friends.

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” wrote Mark Twain. There is more than a touch of rose-tinted spectacles about “San Franciscan Nights”. Still if you were going to Northern California in 1967 the flowers in your hair & the free love would keep you warm. It’s unrealistic, a little credulous but that’s hippies for you, you gotta love the innocence. “San Franciscan Nights”, the band’s biggest hit is charming, a couple of years ago we were listening to this on a 60s radio show, the DJ let it run out & said, “that’s the coolest song ever”. We may have laughed but we did not argue. BUT, the song seems to have been removed from the Internet. So, “Good Times” it is then.

The group played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The psychedelic Animals stormed it with the hippies, their attack a good fit with the aggression of the Who & Jimi Hendrix (an honorary Brit). Eric, of course, wrote a song about it. “The Byrds & the Airplane Flew” (ouch !) & a lovely quote from the former’s “Renaissance Fair”. This single was not released in the UK. Two young fans knew which dark corners of the radio dial would be likely to play the tune. I can often struggle to remember what I had for dinner two nights ago but the memory of hearing “Monterey” for the first time is palpable…strange.

With the confidence gained from decent sales & the acceptance of a new audience the band recorded a lot of material. In January 1968 they released an epic 2 part single which was over 7 minutes long.

From my, hopefully, more adult perspective if a band had a track which already included flanging, aeroplanes & gunfire and they were thinking of adding bagpipes, I would advise against it. My 15 year old self  loved the everything but the kitchen sink approach of “Sky Pilot”. It was anti-war, against the hypocrisy of a religion which gives its blessing to troops before they go out to kill people. It was both right on and far out…at the same time…still is.

This run  of 45s are simplistic hippie statements (“includes Indians too”) with some very distinctive acid rock. In the USA the Vietnam War was causing a polarization of the generations. Eric Burdon & the Animals records were played on the radio & were so straightforward that you had to go…well yeah ! The band were a little too prolific. In 1968 they released 3 LPs, one of which, “Love Is” is a double & there were diminishing returns. 1967’s “Winds of Change” was a cherished record of ours at the time. If I can find some interesting clips of the future Police guitarist, Andy Summers’ short time with the band then I’m not finished with Eric because those records were a little crazy, Prog-rock Johnny Cash covers…anyone ?

Eric was caught in a whirlwind for a while & the band finished. He still though had a good reputation and any music he made would be given a hearing. It was not long before he was back in the charts with an L.A. funk band as he declared War.

A Sharps buffalo rifle! This is gettin’ downright romantic! (Slim Pickens)

All boys grow up watching  “cowboy” films. The Western movie has been a Hollywood staple since before the advent of sound. In the 1940s & 50s great directors & stars produced a classic run of films that we saw on TV, often sitting with our fathers who considered John Wayne, Gary Cooper & others to be real men, not like these film stars they have today. A Western has so many conventions, a man has got to do what a man’s got to do, the cold-hearted killer in a black hat gets his just desserts (death on a dusty Main Street), heading them off at the pass, it’s a long list. No Western is complete without a whiskery old-timer spouting authentic western gibberish while looking for the nearest spittoon. In the great years popular actors like Gabby Hayes and Walter Brennan had long careers playing essentially the same character in slightly different saloons. In the 1960s the actors were older, Wayne wore a toupee & a corset, James Stewart just the wig. The fine tradition of the “darn tootin'” & “dadgumit” sidekick was continued by one of our favourite actors, the incomparable Slim Pickens.

A gunshot & “What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-going on here. I hired you people to try to get a little track laid, not to jump around like a bunch of Kansas City faggots !”. Slim Pickens’ entry into Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” (1974) is just perfect. By this stage of his career you knew what Slim could deliver. The script of “Blazing Saddles” by Brooks, Richard Pryor & 3 others) is almost perfect, still hilarious, still provocative & offensive. It nailed every Western cliche as a black sheriff got to do what a black sheriff got to do. In a fine cast Slim, as Taggert, was given some great lines, none delivered with more relish than “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks” before he punched Buddy Bizarre (Dom de Louise) in the balls.

Slim had been a rodeo cowboy before making movies. In the 1950s he made a lot of B-movie Westerns (and “One Eyed Jacks” the Brando directed cowboy film of 1961)  before becoming a regular in the many TV Westerns of the early 1960s. It was in “Bonanza”, “Wagon Train” & “The Virginian” where he had become our favourite. He caught a break in 1964 when the best director of his day needed a cowboy to ensure that the world ended with a bang.

Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love the Bomb” (1964) is one of cinema’s great comedies. A comedy so black that “even the white bits are black” (© Michael Palin). This satire on the ridiculous and dangerously flawed Cold War posturing of the time, paranoia posing as policy, has so much to recommend it. The performances of Peter Sellers (3 of them), George C Scott, Sterling Hayden & Keenan Wynn are all the greatest roles they have ever played. Major T J “King” Kong is the pilot of an American plane which, despite the efforts of the  US & Russian forces, avoids detection & delivers its deadly nuclear payload. Slim Pickens got to end the world astride a bomb while whooping & waving like the rodeo star he once was.

The role had been offered to John Wayne ! The story is that Slim was not told the film was a comedy & was not shown the whole script. After a hasty acquisition of a first passport he arrived in England seemingly already in character.  “Gosh, he’s arrived in costume!,” not realizing that that’s how he always dressed … with the cowboy hat and the fringed jacket and the cowboy boots — and that he wasn’t putting on the character — that’s the way he talked. “Shoot a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff”, Brilliant ! Slim knew that he was in the right place at the right time. As he said, the dressing rooms and the cheques got bigger after this film.

Another outstanding director had noticed Slim Pickens too. He was cast in 4 of Sam Peckinpah’s movies, probably more than any other actor. In 1973 Peckinpah directed “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”. In 1969 he had set the standard for the modern Western he made “The Wild Bunch” .”Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle”, wrote Pauline Kael. Sam packed his film with gnarled Western character actors, Jack Elam, Chill Wills & others. However “Pat Garrett” was troubled in production & post-production (6 editors were employed). The impressionistic result could have been by accident or design. It’s a sprawling, philosophical movie not a rooting-tooting shoot-em-up & it is another great film from a great director.

Slim Pickens played the small part of Sheriff Baker who accompanies Garrett (James Coburn) to arrest Billy’s gang. Baker is mortally wounded &, watched by his wife (Kathy Jurado), sits by the river waiting to die. Bob Dylan acted in the film and wrote the original score. It is this scene which uses “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”, now rightly considered a classic song. There are ins, there are outs, there are stories that Peckinpah did not want to use this song for this scene. Whatever, this is an important & effective scene. It deserves to have one of the best songs specifically written for  movie to add to its effectiveness. That soundtrack LP got a lot of play round our house, I shall dig it out for a re-visit I think.

Well, ain’t this just fine & dandy. I set out to tip my hat to a character actor who made an impression & always entertained. In just 3 clips I have been able to include 2 of the funniest comedies ever & 2 of the most iconic scenes of my cinematic memories. Maybe Slim made a pretty good contribution to the movies. It is for sure an Immutable Law of Hollywood that no film was ever made worse by the inclusion of  Slim Pickens.

Music And Movies III(That Girl Can Sing)

Well, pour some Sugar on me ! “Some Like It Hot” is a perfect comedy by one of the greatest directors. Marilyn made some memorable films but she was never better than her portrayal of the guileless Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, the singer with Sweet Sue & her Society Synchopators, America’s premier all-girl band until the Shangri-Las came along. I care little for the parasitical mountain of speculation about her confused life and her unfortunate, premature death. Marilyn Monroe is a film star and a beautiful actress. It is her work on the screen by which she should be judged. Billy Wilder ensured that she gave a performance to equal her co-stars, Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis, in this wonderful film. She was never funnier and never more alluring.

I watch this story of Jerry & Joe on the run from Spats Colombo regularly & I am never disappointed. Marilyn’s performance of  “I Want To Be Loved By You” is never less than breath-taking. I am always impressed by Wilder’s lighting of this scene, keeping the spotlight on his star’s head. I would comment on the dress but then I would have to mention Marilyn’s breasts & this is not that kind of blog !

Even if Shelley Duvall had not been a regular in Robert Altman’s company of actors she would have still been the logical choice to play Olive Oyl in his film of “Popeye”. Ms Duvall hesitated when offered the part, she had been nicknamed “Olive” as a child because of her gawky clumsiness. Of course she was. Her CV at this time reads “Annie Hall”, “The Shining”, “Popeye” & “Time Bandits”… thank you Shelley Duvall.

So the maverick Altman made a live-action movie of a much-loved cartoon with a script by an ascerbic cartoonist, Jules Feiffer,  songs by the idiosyncratic Harry Nilsson & then there was criticism that the result was not what was expected…no shit Sherlock. “Popeye” was never going to be a blockbusting franchise. It is a stunning imagining of an alternate world. Altman’s technique of revealing the big picture through a collection of snapshots, often over-lapping or incomplete, is not for those who like their films to have a beginning a middle & and end, preferably in that order. It works for me & Nilsson’s snatches of tunes are absolutely sympathetic to the tone of the movie.

Paul Thomas Anderson was watching. His ensemble films & the use of “He Needs Me” in “Punch Drunk Love” confirms that. I would guess that Tim Burton was watching too. If you did not like “Popeye” the first time around then give it another chance. You are probably more mature now, you will have seen so many worse films since then & “you owe me an apology”.

I liked Jim Sheridan’s film “In America” from the moment the opening credits rolled. To cast Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton, Britain’s finest young actors, in the same movie ?  You had me at “Fox Searchlight Presents”. This affecting film, about an Irish family trying to overcome the tragedy of the loss of a child & to establish their family in New York from the most impoverished of beginnings is an affirmation of the durability of core human values, love, family, friendship, hope. So, no car chases & not a lot of CGI. It is a story so assuredly & unsentimentally told that I still find it difficult to believe that the director’s next film was the 50 Cent biopic “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ “.

The two daughters, aware of the struggles of their parents but excited by the new adventure, are played by real sisters and they are a delight. 11 year old Sarah Bolger (Christy) performs that most American of songs “Desperado” at her school concert. It is a moving confirmation that life is less uncertain for the family & that the risks the parents have taken have been worth it…lovely. Sarah Bolger, my research (Ha !) shows, is now a beautiful young woman with a number of films & TV roles to her credit. I will look for her new films & she has a head start because of her great performance of this song.

Geordies Go America (The Animals)

In 1964 American music was in thrall to the  British upstarts who swarmed across the Atlantic in the aftershock of the Beatles. Many, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark 5, were pretty disposable, that’s how pop music is. In September of that year the first non- Mop Top British #1 was a record which set a new standard of  innovation & quality for this music explosion. “The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional American folk-blues, it has been recorded by the greatest of that country’s artists, I first heard it on Bob Dylan’s first LP. In the hands of the Animals, Newcastle’s very own R&B heroes, the song became a pulsating pop record. From the opening guitar arpeggio (huh !), Alan Price’s palpitating organ & the impassioned vocal by a pocket rocket Geordie with an extra-ordinary voice, the track is instantly recognisable and an instant classic. I’m not going to include the song here, we all know how it goes. The Animals made some memorable records after their triumphant entry and here’s one of them

In the North East of England, Eric Burdon grew up with a passion for American music. Like Van Morrison in Belfast he wanted to sing like Ray Charles or John Lee Hooker. For both of these young men emotion came before technique. The Animals were a wild, raving live band covering Hooker, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley (Live at the Club A-Go-Go 1963…mmm !). “Rising Sun” was their 2nd single recorded with a young producer, Mickie Most, a mean motor scooter & a bad go-getter more interested in making records that sold than creating art. This collision, the rawness of the Animals, the pop sensibility of Most resulted in a sound which kept the band in the charts all over the world for 2 years.

The Animals did not write their own material & this caused a couple of ripples. “House of the Rising Sun”‘s arrangement had been credited to organist Price. When the royalty cheque arrived, (carried by 4 big guys), others in the band got a reality check instead. Price was out…musical differences ? Yeah right. The wilder blues jams of their LPs did not make for commercial records, “Bring It On Home To Me” a Sam Cooke tune, “Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood” a song written for Nina Simone, were given smart soulful arrangements which featured Eric Burdon’s magnetic interpretations. there were other hits too.

The story goes that Mickie Most rang the Brill Building, New York’s song-writing factory, in search of songs for the Animals. That one call yielded “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” (Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill), “It’s My Life” (Roger Atkins & Carl D’Errico) and “Don’t Bring Me Down” (Gerry Goffin & Carole King) all hits on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have always thought that the experience of all of these young British provincial men, born in a war, raised in an austere country (food was rationed until 1954), suddenly gaining access to the benefits and the temptations of stardom  in the richest country in the world must have been surreal for them. Promoting “It’s My Life” the Animals are dressing well, looking cool & not taking it too seriously. These young Geordie men were now world travellers, exposed to new ideas. They were not too happy about the constant touring and the songs they were being given to record. The band left Mickie Most to record in the USA with Tom Wilson.

“Inside-Looking Out”, a work song polished by Burdon & bass player Chas Chandler, was not a big hit but was more representative of how the Animals wanted to sound. Who can blame them ? This live TV appearance shows what a great band they had become. All 5 members are making a contribution here. The ill-advised band uniforms aside this is great 60s music. It was to be their last recorded 45, the irresistible “Don’t Bring Me Down” came later but was from an earlier session. Their manager, Mike Jeffery, the owner of the Club A Go-Go, was suspected of appropriating the band’s earnings & the band were falling apart. Drummer John Steel went back to Newcastle, guitarist Hilton Valentine discovered L.S.D & Chandler discovered Jimi Hendrix.

Eric Burdon was left with his reputation as a great blues shouter but had no band. he was far from finished. It was still only 1966 & it had been a short, strange trip. The Animals are not always placed in that pantheon of British groups along with the Beatles, Stones, Kinks & the Who. Their powerful blend of blues, soul & pop was influential & produced some great music.