In The Cheap Seats With The Popcorn

Image result for stan and ollieEarlier this month I spent the most pleasant of afternoons seeing “Stan & Ollie” at the local multiplex. A film about cinema’s greatest comedy duo couldn’t be anything but affectionate & respectful & this one hits those notes perfectly. The twin heartbeats of the film are Steve Coogan & John C Reilly’s outstanding impersonations of Laurel & Hardy. Set in dreary 1950’s Britain subtle direction smartly blurs any lines between the real blokes & these new guys. It’s no “Sons of the Desert” (1933), nothing else is but it’s a fine, warm piece of work. The cinema has reduced all seats to £5 ($6.60) so I’ll be returning next week for Tim Burton’s live action remake of “Dumbo”. I’ll take a couple of kids with me because the sight of a tearful, solitary old man is never a good one.

 

There’s not been a movie post for a while so here are some recent films that not only held my attention but I would be happy to watch again in my home cinema complex (I have a TV AND a sofa!).

 

 

It’s stating the obvious that “Green Book” was not the best film of 2018 despite the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deciding it was. I’m not getting into the whole “white saviour” thing, that’s imposing an unnecessary critique on to a film that renders the developing relationship between an odd interracial couple as broadly & as inoffensively as possible. Race relations in 21st century America deserves a more nuanced perspective & we were never going to get that from writer/director Peter Farrelly whose last two films were “The Three Stooges” & “Dumb & Dumber To”. The film introduced me to the cool piano music of Don Shirley so that’s good.

 

Image result for blackkklansmanHaving been a fan of Spike Lee since “She’s Gotta Have It” I much preferred “BlacKkKlansman”. Denzel’s boy John David Washington was prominent in the TV series “Ballers”, he & his perfect afro star in the unlikely but true story of Ron Stallworth, the black cop who infiltrates the Klan using only a telephone & Adam Driver. Spike’s characteristic energy & commitment to his viewpoint makes for an exciting ride. The clip above, cutting from a violent assault by racist cops to the joy of a “Soul Train” line dance (“It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now” – Cornelius Bros & Sister Rose) shows the director at the top of his game. Lee will, I hope, never lose the agitprop aspect of his films, “BlacKkklansman”, set in the 1970’s, has plenty to say about contemporary America. The denouement may stray from actual events, the closing link to Charlottesville & the President’s refusal to condemn the actions of racists is elementary but a necessary & effective reminder that things are same as it ever was.

 

 

Image result for sorry to bother youBoots Riley’s frantic, deliriously absurd anti-capitalist satire “Sorry To Bother You” is a “what the heck is happening here?” eruption & marks the debut of a strikingly talented new writer/director. Riley’s mad, mad, mad world is packed with ideas, maybe too many,  understandable for a film-maker eager to take his chance. “S.T.B.Y.”, set in a skewed version of Oakland, California, made plenty at the box office, the bottom line in the business & there will be more from Boots. Oakland, across the bay from & connected by bridge to San Francisco, has a history of radical ideas, it’s where the Black Panther Party was founded. The success of Silicon Valley & the subsequent squeeze on affordable housing in S.F. has brought gentrification to working class neighbourhoods in Oakland, a major concern in “Blindspotting” the best American film of 2018.

 

Image result for blindspottingThe script of “Blindspotting”, by Daveed Diggs & Rafael Casal, both actors, friends since high school, evolved over 10 years & it shows. Every scene is lean & mean, the dialogue crackles, Collin (Diggs) has just days to go on his probation, anxious that his future should be jail-free, disturbed when he witnesses the murder of a young black man by a white cop. His best friend Miles (Casal), short-tempered & violent, is unhappy about the changes to the city, happy with the life he lives but does he really need that gun? “Blindspotting” skillfully blends the comedy with the drama, the friendship between the pair, one black, one white, feels like the real thing. Important issues, loyalty, class, race, police violence, are dealt with smartly, pertinently & without forcing it. When Miles’ young son finds his father’s gun you are on the edge of your seat, it happens again when Collin, the same gun tucked into his waistband, is on a street late at night with the cops for company. Collin’s closing flow, ” How come every time you come around you monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town? I say it while I’m rapping, nigga, ’cause everyone conditioned to listen to a rapping nigga”, says it loud. “Blindspotting” has got the bounce.

 

Image result for shoplifters movieAlfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”, a beautifully shot remembrance of his childhood in 1970’s Mexico City, won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. An early release on Netflix expanded the audience for a finely detailed, impressively observed story. Another nominee in the same category was “Shoplifters” which concerns the struggles of a poor Tokyo household (really a family but it’s complicated) with the law, Love, morality & survival. Intense, involving, subtle, the film attracts a list of adjectives, all of them good. I certainly must include the word “Humanity” here. Director Hirokazu Koreeda has been ranked with leading exponents of neorealism like Ozu & De Sica & I will be checking out his earlier films. In my opinion “Roma” is a very good movie while “Shoplifters” is a masterpiece.

 

 

Finally a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do & pick a Western. Much as I enjoyed “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, the six story anthology by the always dependable Coen Brothers, its fragmentary format made for some unevenness. As is the case with most of the pair’s movies more of its strength & charms will be revealed on repeated viewings.  Anyway it was always going to lose out to a cowboy film I had been eagerly anticipating for the whole of 2018.

 

Jacques Audiard has been making excellent films for over 20 years. The last three, “A Prophet”, “Rust & Bone” & “Dheepan” are among the best of the 21st century. I was always going to be at the front of the queue for “The Sisters Brothers”, his first in the English language. Charlie (Joaquin Pheonix) & Eli (John C Reilly again) Sisters are enforcers, stone-cold killers for the Commodore who trek across the West to San Francisco & the California Gold Rush in pursuit of their target. Like other European directors who go to Hollywood to make a genre film Audiard, who is French, respects the tradition of the great Westerns he saw when they were “a l’affiche” in Paris while adding  stylish flourishes to a well-trodden path.

 

Image result for the sisters brothers“The Sisters Brothers” has an Old West shabbiness bringing to mind “McCabe & Mrs Miller”, classy Peckinpah-like ultraviolence, scenery courtesy of John Ford & the director’s own sense of epic story telling. The extreme gold prospecting really is something that you haven’t seen before. Pheonix is good as the murderous Charlie, Reilly better as the reflective, protective Eli, Riz Ahmed & Jake Gyllenhaal add fine support. It’s not the first time that a European co-production has suffered at the hands of its American distributor. The big bucks promotional budget isn’t forthcoming when there are too many hands in the box office returns till. That’s a pity because, as you may have guessed, I think it’s a very good movie & if you are a fan of Westerns then I think you will too. “The Sisters Brothers” opens in the UK in early April & I’ll be handing over my £5 to enjoy it again on the big screen then I’ll be waiting for the “Deadwood” movie.

 

Well that’s a lot of films, things got a little out of hand there. No mention of “The Favourite” either because we all knew that one day director Yorgos Lanthimos was going to crush it. He & his triple threat stars made an outstanding modern period drama but you knew that already too.

Kaleidoscope Eyes (British Psych March 1969)

This year I intended to start a monthly bulletin of music from the British underground from 50 years ago. Based on information provided by the good people at the Marmalade Skies website January’s went just fine. February proved to be a little sparse & I struggled to find three tunes to feature. Not wanting to short change my valued reader (Hi Micky), I stopped doing that weeks ago, I gave it a swerve & regular has become occasional. Things have picked up for March 1969 & it’s time to remount the giant albatross which flew through a crack in the cloud to a place where happiness reigned all year round. So, are you all seated comfly-bold two-square on your botty? Then I’ll begin.

 

 

Image result for kaleidoscope bandThere’s a strong argument to be made that Kaleidoscope are the great lost band of British Pop-Psych. The 2 albums released by the 4 piece from London, “Tangerine Dream” (1967) & “Faintly Blowing” (1969), have continued to attract interest even devotion from those who either missed them or were too young the first time around. The group’s pop-pastoral intent, influenced by “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Syd Barrett & Donovan, is very well realised. Personally I find the lyrics of vocalist Peter Daltrey, feathered tigers & porcupine captains, a little prolix. I prefer my fantasy to be sturdier, more Mervyn Peake than Tolkein. Hey, pop a microdot on my tongue & I may tell you something different. It is the music of guitarist Eddie Pumar, interesting instrumentation & effects, a crisp, sparkling production by Dick Leahy, that gives the records a stylistic consistency & an enduring appeal. “Faintly Blowing” aims for a bigger, heavier sound & is more than capably handled by the group.

 

Kaleidoscope were well supported by the small bohemian cadre on the UK’s only music radio station but failed to find a large audience. 4 of the group’s 5 singles were not included on the LPs. The intention with these melodic but more lightweight songs was to crossover on to the daytime shows & grab a hit. It could have worked, careful if you click on “Jenny Artichoke”, it’s so flipping catchy you will be humming it all week wondering just how it didn’t make “Top of the Pops”. “Do It Again For Jeffrey” is in a similar vein, the big chorus sounds like one of those Beatle steals that Oasis were so partial to. The obvious, long term strategy would have been to have used the singles format as promotion for the albums. The record company, a little behind the changing times, knew better. Kaleidoscope re-branded as Fairfield Parlour for one more album of cultured, harmonious Progressive music, one more nugget that remained unappreciated for years.

 

 

Image result for pete brown battered ornamentsWhen poet Pete Brown added music to his words the First Real Poetry Band had some major players including John McLaughlin off of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Cream needed  lyrics for their music & he was in the right place, making a lasting connection with bassist Jack Bruce. “I Feel Free”, “White Room”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, in fact if it wasn’t a Blues jam, a drum solo or “Badge” Pete was involved. His greater visibility & the sizeable royalty cheques led to the formation of Pete Brown & his Battered Ornaments. With the former John Mayall saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith moonlighting from Colosseum & tyro guitarist Chris Spedding they made the scene with the LP “A Meal You Can Shake Hands With”, an unruly mix of Jazz, Blues, poetry & studio improvisation is a snapshot of the influences & variety to be found in 1969’s British underground music. I have friends (Hi Andy!) who love this sort of stuff.

 

Image result for pete brown battered ornaments“The Week Looked Good On Paper”, a single released this month, is a little more restrained than the material on “A Meal…”. The next LP “Mantle-Piece” was recorded & a place on the bill for the Stones in Hyde Park free concert set (through the group’s management Blackhill Enterprises who organised the gig) when Pete, an individual & unpredictable performer, was sacked from his own band the day before. The Battered Ornaments played in the park, Chris Spedding replaced the poet’s vocals on the record. Undeterred Pete was soon back on the road with Piblokto & recorded the finely titled “Things May Come & Things May Go But The Art School Dance Goes On Forever” (1970). The Ornaments folded & Spedding went on to play with just about everyone you have ever heard of.

 

 

This month saw a great line up at Mothers, a former ballroom above the furniture shop on Erdington High St Birmingham, near the small precinct, you know it. Mothers only ran from August 1968 to January 1971 & was quickly established as a fixture on the underground gig circuit. I moved to Erdington in 1975, right place, wrong time. My good friend Clive was on the spot, it was a short walk, a longer stagger back every weekend to catch the brightest new groups in the country. On March 22nd it was 50p (67 cents) to see Led Zeppelin who were to release their debut LP in 9 days time (it was already available in the US). We were huddled around a small radio in a Yorkshire youth hostel to hear “Communication Breakdown” for the first time. Imagine doing the same thing while Led Zep, live & loud, were yards away in a small North Birmingham club.

 

 

Image result for free band 1969The British Blues Boom, led by the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers diaspora, hit a commercial high in January 1969 with “Albatross”, an instrumental by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, making the UK #1 spot. Bassist Andy Fraser played with Mayall’s band when he was just 15. His next band were the young guns of the scene, friends who saw one of the early gigs by Free came back raving about the energy & excitement they had witnessed. This was more than youthful brio, the 4 teenagers had skills too. “Tons of Sobs” Free’s debut LP was in the shops on March 14th 1969. Pretty much their live set, recorded in a few days with producer Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople, “London Calling”!, just out of prison), it’s raw, raucous & it rocks, Fraser & drummer Simon Kirke are a powerful rhythm section, guitarist Paul Kossoff, a precocious talent & singer Paul Rodgers a braggadocious, forceful frontman. There was a greater than the sum of its parts thing going on here.

 

Image result for free broad daylight 1969“The Hunter” is an Albert King song written by Booker T & the M.G.’s, a modern Blues & a discerning choice for a group less attached to purism than other British players. A 45 not included on the LP was also released in March 1969. “Broad Daylight” is from the burgeoning songwriting partnership of Fraser & Rodgers, prolific enough to provide another collection later in the year when the song was re-recorded. The single, like “Tons of Sobs” was not a great commercial success but Free would find their feet, make their mark & could have joined the top rank of British Rock bands. That deserves a post of its own, some other time. But for now…

 

Temptations Bout To Get You (Soul March 1969)

`OK, the Billboard R&B chart from 50 years ago. The first two weeks of the month found James Brown, “Soul Brother Number One”, “Mr Dynamite” or, my favourite,” the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk”, enjoying yet another #1 record. “Give It Up Or Turnit Loose” marked the 8th time he had made the top of the R&B chart & there were to be 9 more,  incredible. The next chart toppers were The Temptations & “Runaway Child Running Wild” was their 9th single to do so. A striking thing about the listings for the 22nd of March was that at #2 was a singer who had played a major part in the previous success of the Motown vocal group.

 

 

Image result for david ruffin magazine coverThe authentic star power of David Ruffin, a man comfortable in the spotlight, & the dramatic swirling “My Whole World Ended (the Moment You Left Me)”. David was fired by the Temptations in June 1968. The story of the split has been told by many sides (books of varying quality, an awful TV movie) & he never comes out too well in the telling. Money, drugs & ego are all well & good but do tend to be a volatile mix. Wanting to alter the name of the group to “David Ruffin & the…” was never going to fly with the 4 other members who had all been Temptations longer than he had. He was the featured vocalist on “My Girl”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “(I Know) I’m Losing You” & others you know, so that’s who he is, a great talent & he had made his contribution.

 

Image result for david ruffin magazineAfter an awkward standoff between David, who announced he was fronting a new group, & Tamla Motown blocking appearances by them, he signed to the label as a solo artist. The whistles & bells were pulled out for the debut single & “My Whole World…” is from the top rank of Motown Chartbusters. The subsequent LP is a great showcase for Ruffin’s unique rough-hewn voice, earthy, still sweet & never too harsh. There are plenty of echoes of past glories, songs & stories of thwarted & lost loves, though not by Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield. The label’s fabled quality control could have insisted on a little more work on them. Things were changing in Detroit, Marvin & Stevie were taking control in the studio, Whitfield & the Temptations had their “Psychedelic Soul”. A little extra was needed now & the next 45 from the record, “I’ve Lost Everything I’ve Ever Loved”, was not as successful.

 

 

Eugene Record had been plying his musical trade in Chicago for a decade. His group, the Hi-Lites became the Chi-Lites & the patronage of producer/label head Carl Davis placed his compositions with other artists from the Windy City. Eugene had co-written & produced the hit instrumental “Soulful Strut” for Young Holt Unlimited & March 1969 was the month that things really started going right for him. At #10 “Give It Away” was the first hit for the Chi-Lites. They were able to maintain this success &, a couple of years later, were right up there with those new groups from Philadelphia. This wasn’t the only reason for celebration. A couple of rungs higher, at #8, was another of Eugene’s songs.

 

Image result for betty everett there'll come a timeBetty Everett made enough of an impression between 1963-65 for her label Vee Jay to issue a “Very Best of…” LP. “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)”, that’s the one that everyone knows but there were other notable ones, popular Soul dance hits, delicious duets with Jerry Butler. Vee Jay’s financial troubles left her stranded & it wasn’t until 1969 that she could do it properly again. The lush, swaying “There’ll Come A Time” & the rest of an album packed with good tunes & arrangements, shows Betty to be assured, effortless & versatile. She may not have been as distinctive as some of the more prominent female singers of the day but she did everything with class & caught your attention every time.

 

 

The highest new entry this week was “I’ll Try Something New”, the second single from the high profile (a TV special!) collaboration by Diana Ross & the Supremes & those Temptations again, in at #23. There were other entries from big hitters Gladys Knight & the Pips, Aretha Franklin & Sam & Dave. You got me when it comes to Debbie Taylor, Vernon Garrett, Laura Greene & Johnny McKinnis but I’m getting on it. All very good I’m sure. In at #44 was another enduring, talented vocal group & I never miss a chance to listen to the Dells.

 

Image result for the dells hallways of my mindAfter having their first hit in 1956 the five piece Dells barely troubled the charts while establishing a reputation as a live act. Signing with the Chicago label Chess they were matched with songwriter/producer Bobby Miller, the outstanding, innovative arranger Charles Stepney & their fortunes changed. The guys in the backroom brought the best out of the powerful baritone of Marvin Junior, the startling range, from tenor to falsetto, of Johnny Carter & three others who had known just how the backing vocals went since the days of Doo-Wop.  The uptempo, uplifting “Hallways of My Mind”, an intoxicating Chi-town mix of brass, strings & voices, is from a chain of fine records, Soul belters, last dance smoochers, imaginative takes on the  classics. Whatever the Dells turned their voices to worked. I have an e-friend who rates the Dells alongside any of the great American vocal groups & she’s not usually wrong about most things.

 

A couple of years later Bobby Miller moved across to Tamla Motown to ride shotgun on the next record by David Ruffin. David had become something of a problem for the label &, in 1971, a perfectly good collection of songs, all sequenced & with a catalogue number, was shelved. (It wasn’t released for over 30 years). The resulting eponymously titled LP, his third, matched his voice with tailor-made material that did justice to Ruffin’s growing maturity. See what I did there, I finished this thing by bringing it back to the beginning. I don’t just make this stuff up as I go along y’know, I said I don’t just…

 

 

Multi Kulti (African Music)

New delights on the Y-tube are harder to come by when you have been looking as long as I have. That’s no big problem, there’s a pile, a substantial one, of remarkable uploads by great artists that I am happy to revisit. A current time travelling favourite sets the controls to the 3rd of December 1978, the night I saw Peter Tosh play at the Manchester Apollo & I am able to listen to that very concert…lovely. This week, searching for a song that got a lot of play round our end, I found it…

 

 

George Darko, high quality & in good form, with a couple of infectious songs including “Hi-Life Time” the sound of the Summer of 1984. A fine inclusion on our dance party tape alongside Grace Jones’ “Pull Up to the Bumper” & “Just Be Good To Me” by the SOS Band. There was a lot of African music around in the 1980’s. It was marketed as “World Music” but I was & still am with the late, great Bill Hicks when it came to those pettifoggers, “Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet”. Good music can come from anywhere though probably not France (joke!). South Africa’s Bhundu Boys, backed by DJ Jon Peel, played everywhere. We saw the two Nigerian superstars, Fela Kuti closed a Glastonbury festival with his amazing troupe of dancers & musicians while we were definitely under dressed in Hammersmith when London’s West African community put on their finery to welcome King Sunny Ade.  George Darko made his records in Germany, Burger-Highlife, an immigrant style & fashion. He was from Ghana & we were learning more about that country.

 

Image result for george darko highlife timeMy friend Mitchell & I worked at a small warehouse with three Ghanaians, all good people. Paul was urbane, had lived in Accra, Paris & London, a citizen of the world, avuncular Ben asked my mate to marry one of his family so that she could stay in the UK, Mitch declined. Emmanuel, Mani, was a gentle, kindly barrel of a man, lunchtimes were filled with his stories of witchcraft in soccer, the time James Brown came to town (Soul to Soul 1971), sharing his wife’s delicious & generous portions of fufu. They invited me to a Saturday night hop with a star Pop singer from back home. Myself & three friends rocked up to a community centre in Stockwell, South London & were welcomed by our workmates & their friends, which was like everybody in the place. The music was fine, drink was taken, we didn’t go on stage to thrust money down the singer’s shirt &, thanks to the attention paid to my blonde companion, we were never short of dance partners. Good music with good people is a fine time wherever you are in the world. There was enough difference about the Ghanaian Pop concert for it to be a new experience.

 

 

Image result for youssou n'dour posterI can’t check for every African artist who caught our attention, that would be a list but I must feature two whose work included outstanding records, among the best of the decade from any continent. From Senegal Youssou N’Dour, with his group Super Etoile de Dakar, was the young star of the Sahel & beyond.  It says here that “Immigres” came to the UK via Virgin in 1988, I must have had the earlier French release…get me! The 4 track LP is a wonderful blend of Afro-Latin drum rhythms, the fluid guitar of Jimi Mbaye & vibrant brass, a setting for Youssou’s affecting, emotional vocals. I’m not familiar with the Wolof language but I believe the songs are about the African diaspora in Europe. Whatever, the songs are perfect & Youssou N’Dour was on his way to a long successful career & to becoming the most celebrated artist from that continent.

“Immigres”, recorded in Paris, received some criticism for its use of synthesizers. These are young, creative, imaginative & ambitious musicians enjoying the tools available in a modern recording studio. What are they supposed to do, bang some sticks together? Have a word with yourself.

 

 

Image result for salif keita posterIt was the local library on the Walworth Road, up near the Elephant & Castle, you know it, that put me on to Malian music. A record by the fantastically named Super Rail Band Orchestre Du Buffet Hôtel De La Gare De Bamako sounded like the most fun to be had in any railway station in the world & I taped it before returning the album (Libraries! Cassettes!, jeez the olden days eh?). Salif Keita, an albino ostracised by his family, started with the Rail Band before achieving success with Les Ambassadeurs. Political unrest forced a move out of Bamako, the capital of Mali, & in 1984 Salif settled in Paris where, three years later, he recorded the LP “Soro”.

 

“Soro” takes all the modern technology it can get. Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla & French arranger Jean-Philippe Rykiel employ swirling synthesized keyboards to enhance traditional instruments & modern grooves. It takes a master to impose himself on such a strong framework  & the Golden Voice of Mali is up to the task, forceful or beguiling as the material demands. “Soro” is the sound of modern Africans & “Soureba” still hits the spot every time.

 

In 1988 we had such a good night at a Don Cherry concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, a few beers in the busy bar of the National Film Theatre, a comfortable & acoustically superior auditorium, that we decided to take a chance on the other gigs there by international stars. We were the only ones in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s audience unaware that the Pakistani Qawwali singer was already a superstar. His unique vocal range, his ability to convey the rapture & devotion of his religion made us believers for the evening, in awe of such a talent. At the same place, the same time just a week later we were beguiled by the London debut of a guitarist who made us consider just where much of the music we listened to & loved had originated.

 

Image result for ali farka toureHad Ali Farka Toure, another Malian musician, ever heard John Lee Hooker? Don’t know, don’t care. Another outstanding singer, his stripped back music, electric guitar & accompanist Amadou Cisse on the dried gourd Calabash percussion, was mesmeric, almost drone-like, still vibrant & absolutely engaging. It sounded like the African Blues & great Blues at that. How had such sonic transatlantic conveyance happened? Could we be hearing the source of a sound that we regard as American or is there a universal rhythm & feeling that humans will embrace & express wherever the heck in the world we happen to be? Mind blown!

 

Of course I’m aware that when it came to African music I was a tourist . I didn’t know my Amharic from my Igbo, any of the languages & the cultural nuances. I do know that the Rhythm is gonna get you & I was got. The purity if Youssou’s voice, Salif’s grandeur, George Darko getting me out on the floor was proving to be of more interest than much Western music of the time. All I have to do now is click here & it’s the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 28th of March 1988 & Ali Farka Toure is playing a great concert. Oh Yes!