Shoots From The Hip, Hip When He Shoots (Michael Ritchie)

The 1970’s in American cinema is quite rightly regarded as a decade of great creativity. Directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick & others, who had initially worked within the limitations of studio control, matured & flourished as they enjoyed greater independence. They inspired & were joined by the younger “movie brats” Coppola, Cimino, Lucas, Spielberg & Scorsese. It’s a list, a long one, I’ve not mentioned some of my & your favourites & I’m about to add Michael Ritchie. merited by an impressive run of films which still provoke & entertain & are always welcome when they come around on the TV.

 

Image result for downhill racer movie michael ritchieAfter Harvard Ritchie served his directorial apprenticeship on successful shows like “Dr Kildare”, “The Big Valley” & a single episode of “The Man From UNCLE”.  He directed 11 installments of “Run For Your Life”, a series starring Ben Gazzara created by the same crew who made “The Fugitive” (now that sounds good). His debut feature film, “Downhill Racer” (1969), hit cinemas just two weeks after “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” had become the current rage, the highest grossing film of the year & made Robert Redford a major star. In “Downhill Racer” Redford is matched with Gene Hackman, not yet as recognisable as he was to become, who had made a big impression in 1967’s “Bonnie & Clyde”

 

The film is a sharp, succinct commentary on competition & success set in the world of Alpine skiing. Redford’s Olympic hopeful is talented, narcissistic & arrogant, he clashes with the pragmatic, angry (you’ve seen Gene act) coach Hackman. The spare semi-documentary feel, Ritchie hired Ken Loach’s cinematographer & sound man, & the excellently shot race scenes made “Downhill Racer” a pretty good sports movie (it’s not really about sport) & a distinctive, well-received debut for Ritchie. His next two films, released in 1972, featured the same actors.

 

 

Image result for prime cut movieFirst up was “Prime Cut” which matched Lee Marvin (Devlin),  a hitman with a heart, against Hackman (Mary Ann), a slaughterhouse owner with a sideline in slavery. Devlin is sent  to the Kansas prairies by the Chicago Mob after Mary Ann had made mincemeat & then sausages of the previous man for the job. This bootleg butchery is shown in Ritchie’s stylish opening sequence. “Prime Cut” is an amoral, violent, entertaining action film. Marvin is a man with a mission, not to be distracted by Hackman’s moustache-twirling bad guy or young orphan Poppy (Sissy Spacek). There’s a nod to Hitchcock with a combine harvester chase through a cornfield. Spoiler alert…the people get away, a car gets killed.

 

The Midwest mayhem of “Prime Cut” has fine performances from its two stars, memorable set pieces & pulpy dialogue. 1972 was a big year for crime thrillers. There’s a built-to-last solidity about “The Godfather”, “The Getaway” & “Deliverance”. Michael Ritchie’s other film from that year effectively caught the mood of the times & can be considered one of the beat films of a very good year.

 

Robert Redford was 32 when he appeared in “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” (1969), a breakthrough role. He managed his position as a new Hollywood star very cannily & in 1972 starred in 3 films where he turned up, looked handsome & displayed his acting chops. “The Hot Rock” is a clever heist movie, the one about the mountain man “Jeremiah Johnson” was a big hit. He was very involved in the production of “The Candidate”, his second hook up with Michael Ritchie, as cynical as a political movie needed to be in 1972, the year that Richard Nixon was re-elected President by a landslide.

 

 

Image result for the candidate movieSo, Bill McKay (Redford) an idealistic lawyer, son of a former Democratic governor, runs for the US Senate. The deal is that he can’t win so he can speak his mind. McKay is telegenic & a moderation of his message brings an upswing in the polls. In fact the less he says the more likely an upset becomes. Redford hits the spot as the bemused McKay (vote once, vote twice) at the mercy of a pair of jaundiced political pros played by the outstanding Peter Boyle & Allen Garfield. The script by Jeremy Larner, a former speechwriter for Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. These days we know that all politicians are lower than whale shit. TV series like “The Thick of It”, “Veep” & “House of Cards” entertain while confirming that an absence of conscience is a political asset. “The Candidate” hit the bullseye with its points about media influence on the election process, reducing debate to non-sequitur soundbites, encouraging, with the complicity of those chasing votes, the generic rather than the specific. “The Candidate” did this in 1972…it was a warning.

 

Related image Ritchie’s position as a leading cinematic satirist was consolidated with “Smile” (1975), a faux documentary about a teenage beauty pageant, another riff on the failure of American success. It may seem an easy target now but this dark, very funny film, with an  ensemble cast lead by Bruce Dern, retains an affection & consideration for the participants alongside the mockery & cynicism. Satire was quite the thing in 1975, post-Watergate, pre-Bicentennial. Altman’s “Nashville” & Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” may have had bigger budgets & more starpower but “Smile” catches the signs of the times just as well as these higher profile movies.

 

 

Image result for tatum o'neal bad news bearsI keep telling the young folk that they should watch the films of the great comedy actor Walter Matthau but he never played a Superhero so they don’t bother. “Whiplash Willie Gingrich (“The Fortune Cookie”), Oscar Madison (“The Odd Couple”) & Walter Burns (“The Front Page”) are wonderful characters, all lugubrious & anti-social (you’d like him), all in association with Jack Lemmon. I’m not forgetting “Charlie Varrick”. In 1975 Matthau traded insults, written by Neil Simon, with George Burns in “The Sunshine Boys” & was nominated for an Academy award. For his next film he hooked up with Michael Ritchie & it was time to meet Morris Buttermaker.

 

“The Bad News Bears” (1976) is not just a likeable film, it’s absolutely lovable. Buttermaker, an alcoholic former minor league pitcher is hired to coach a Little League baseball team made up of the incompetent kids the others won’t play with. They lose their first game 26-0. He recruits his ex-girlfriend’s daughter (Tatum O’Neal), the best pitcher in town, & the local teenage hoodlum (Jackie Earle Haley, last seen as the villain in “The Tick”). Of course things can only get better & the Bears make the championship game. They don’t win but valuable lessons are learned. So far, so Disney. Did I mention the alcoholism or “the amusement value of hearing little kids cuss like Marines” (Time)?

 

Image result for bad news bearsIn Michael Ritchie’s capable hands “The Bad News Bears” skewers the notion of competition, fair play & success in American society & it’s as funny as heck. Matthau’s hangdog cynicism is magnificent. Tatum O’Neal had won a Best Actress for her only other film & here, demanding Buttermaker pays for ballet lessons in return for playing, a young girl approaching adolescence, you can see why. The group of outsider kids are beautifully played & portrayed. Everyone has a different favourite, Tanner, short-tempered & an imaginative vocabulary, Ahmad, a Black Muslim Hank Aaron fan, the shy, “booger-eating moron” Timmy, the two non-English speaking Mexican brothers & there’s more. It’s not the greatest film ever made but it’s probably the best one about kids’ sport. Man, if ever a movie is going to raise your mood it’s this one. Here’s the ending…

 

 

That’s a pretty good run of film form, “The Bad News Bears” was a box office success & Michael Ritchie was surely set for the big movies. His contemporaries were being given stupid amounts of money, enough to bankrupt studios, to realise their visions.  Ritchie went on to direct films that you’ve seen & that I like but it never really happened for him. I’m not sure why, maybe I’ll have worked it out before I get to do Part Two of this thing.

 

 

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Looking For Sugar (Soul July 1969)

After 6 weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B chart Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” was replaced by yet another #1 hit from the Tamla Motown stable. Junior Walker & the All Stars were the most old-school at the Detroit label, Walker’s raspy saxophone & throaty vocal interjections backed by that driving R&B beat always hit the spot. The rough edges were smoothed a little for “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” & the group had their biggest hit since 1965’s “Shotgun”. The Top 10 was packed with great artists, James Brown, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder. Climbing up to #10 was something new by someone new, another hit out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

 

 

Image result for candi staton i'd rather be an old man's sweetheartAs a teenager Candi Staton toured & recorded with her sister in the Jewell Gospel Trio. Married with four children, it was 1968 before she was ready to begin her solo career. Singer Clarence Carter, well established in Muscle Shoals & who was to become her second husband, introduced Candi to FAME. The studio pulled out all the Funky stops & a run of R&B hits, many written by Carter & George Jackson, earned her the title of “The First Lady of Southern Soul”. “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool)” absolutely fizzes along & Candi could slow it down too. I definitely prefer her version of “Stand By Your Man” to Tammy Wynette’s original.

 

Related imageCandi moved to Warner Brothers in 1974. She stayed with producer Rick Hall for another LP before hooking up with Dave Crawford. Out of these sessions came “Young Hearts Run Free”, a #1 R&B hit, #2 in the UK, an enduring Disco smash. 1976 was the year that all my friends seemed to be getting married, the DJ spins “Young Hearts…”, everyone’s out on the floor & these are the good times. The Bee Gees’ “Nights On Broadway” returned Ms Staton to the UK Top 10 the following year. In 1991 she was back when a remix by the Source of “You Got The Love”, a great lost track, became a party anthem. Whether it was Soul, Disco, Gospel or Dance music, Candi’s strong recognisable vocals always delivered.

 

 

Image result for honey cone while you're out looking for sugarRising to #41 is another debut release, this time on a brand new label. By 1968 Pop’s greatest writing/production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, had become dissatisfied with their position at Tamla Motown records. Responsible for over 20 #1 hits & countless other chart entries there’s not a chance that they saw all the royalties that they were due. The trio got themselves an office in downtown Detroit, converted a movie theatre into a studio & started Hot Wax records. The Honey Cone, a female trio, were the first act signed to the label & “While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” their first record. As you see from the above disc there’s no mention of H-D-H. Ongoing litigation, particularly with Jobete, Motown’s publishing company, meant that sole production credit was given to A&R man Ron Dunbar who shared the writing with “Edith Wayne”, an adopted pseudonym. No-one was fooled, take a listen to the track, that’s how a Holland-Dozier-Holland song goes.

 

 

Image result for honey coneHoney Cone, Carolyn Willis, Shelly Clark & Edna Wright, were brought to the Motor City from Los Angeles where Shelly had been an Ikette & Edna had sung with her sister Darlene Love, a favourite of Phil Spector. The record buying public took some time to become accustomed to this urgent, energetic sound that wasn’t Diana Ross & the Supremes, “While You’re Out…”, “Girls It Ain’t Easy”, “Take Me With You” & the Funktastic “When Will It End” all should have been bigger hits. It was “Want Ads” that finally sold a million in 1971 & succeeding records followed it into the Billboard Pop Top 30. Their star was on the wane by 1973 when Holland-Dozier-Holland proved to be better record men than label executives & Hot Wax folded due to financial problems. That was it for Honey Cone which was a pity as they were not only well-liked but were a worthy part of the American girl group lineage.

 

 

This is where I love being the boss of this thing. The chart was crammed with great songs worthy of our consideration but at #45 was a single by one of my all-time favourite vocalists. So, my final selection for July has to be Howard Tate.

 

Image result for howard tate these are the thingsTate, born in Georgia, raised in Philadelphia, sang Gospel then R&B with Garnett Mimms. His friend brought Howard along to writer/producer Jerry Ragovoy & between 1966-68 the pair created a blend of Tate’s emotional Bluesy lamentations with a sophisticated Uptown New York Soul that was as good as it gets. Jerry liked a touch of drama in his arrangements, with Howard a lighter touch allowed a great singer to shine, never more so than with “Get It While You Can”, the title track of the one LP they made together & a song that has been equalled but rarely bettered. “These Are the Things That Make Me Know You’re Gone” was recorded, without Ragovoy, for Lloyd Price’s Turntable label. (Lloyd had major hits in the 1950’s with songs that you’ve heard of. That’s his photo on the above disc, well it was his company!) The LP “Howard Tate’s Reaction” is not as strong as his previous output but Howard sings the all heck out of the songs & there are not too many of his records about.

 

By the late-70’s Howard had quit the music business & got a real job. A family tragedy led to addiction & homelessness. He was back on the right track when in 2001 a disc jockey discovered him & encouraged him to return to performing. That wonderful voice had endured & there was an acclaimed new LP made with his old producer. Other records followed, the old ones were re-released & the renewal of interest allowed Tate to sing for a new international audience. Plenty of artists, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Ry Cooder & others have covered his songs but, as Soul fans know, there ain’t nothing like the real thing & Howard Tate is certainly that.

Sun Is Shining We’re Going Drivin’ (UK Pop Psych June 1969)

Despite the good intentions of record labels with a re-release schedule to fill there are only so many undiscovered, unappreciated at the time, “gems” to go around. There’s always a lot of good music about & it’s difficult for new talent to get a proper hearing & sometimes, y’know, these records are not that great. So, with apologies to Andwella’s Dream, Rainbow People & Pasha, all I’m sure worthy of investigation, my 3 selections from June 1969 are all by artists who enjoyed long successful careers. First up is Sheffield’s most famous gas fitter.

 

 

If ever there was a dead cert #1 record it was Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The transformation of a familiar song, one of the ditties Lennon &  McCartney gave Ringo to sing, into a soulful tour de force, a showcase for Joe’s leather-lunged vocal, was a masterstroke by producer Denny Cordell. In the early 1960’s there were young British men listening to & studying Ray Charles. In Newcastle, Belfast & Birmingham Eric Burdon, Van Morrison  & Stevie Winwood got the message & discovered their own extraordinary voices. Joe Cocker was up to the same thing in Sheffield, Yorkshire. It took a little longer, a couple of false starts, before the world heard & saw Joe When it happened you certainly knew about it.

 

Image result for joe cocker poster 1969Joe had a few songs of his own but Cordell, identifying his talent as a interpreter of other people’s songs, pointed him in the direction of some very good material for his debut LP. Assembling an array of mainly British talent in the studio (Jimmy Page plays on 5 tracks) the production avoided the exaggerations of the hit single, retaining the power & audacity behind such a distinctive voice. Traffic’s “Feeling Alright” is a grand opening, two Dylan tunes “Just Like a Woman” & “I Shall Be Released” are treated with reverence. “Do I Still Figure in Your Life?”, written by Pete Dello for his group Honeybus was one that inexplicably got away in 1967. Joe does the song & himself justice on this version.

 

Image result for joe cocker 1969In August 1969 Joe rocked up at the Woodstock Festival & the US of A loved him. A tour with his Grease Band was immediately followed by a hook up with Leon Russell who had written Joe’s marvelous “Delta Lady” single. “Mad Dogs & Englishmen”, a Rock & Roll travelling show, established Joe Cocker as a major international star but the intensive workload & on-the-road excesses took a physical & mental toll. He returned to Sheffield & it was some time before he was able to record & tour again. Joe never had to go back to servicing your boiler & thankfully didn’t join the time’s lengthy Rock casualty list. He was a major talent.

 

 

Related imageFor the past 5 years a new single by the Kinks had been a pretty big deal. Ever since 1964 when “You Really Got Me”, you know it, set a new standard for power chord guitar Rock most everything the group released on 7″ of vinyl had made the UK Top 10. Ray Davies was in the vanguard of a generation of British musicians who, following the lead of the Beatles, very quickly progressed from energetic imitation of their idols to expounding their own ideas about how the music should go & finding that millions were listening. The Kinks could rock but it was Ray’s mordant wit, one sharp, satirical eye on the Swinging Sixties, the other on the detail of English suburban life, that propelled an individual, consistent run of hits for which the group was best known.

 

The arrival of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” changed the game. Groups who had been judged on the success of their most recent 45 now needed an album. No problem for the Kinks, “Face to Face” (1966)  & “Something Else By the Kinks” (1967) were…look, you’ll get no objectivity here, these two records are great examples of 1960’s British Pop-Rock, up there with “Revolver”, “Aftermath” & “The Who Sell Out”. Ray was honing his songwriting talent & so was brother Dave, the LP’s both included big hit singles but they didn’t sell very well. With ” The Village Green Preservation Society” the Kinks eschewed the psychedelic flourishes of their contemporaries favouring a wistful  nostalgia, “pictures of things as they used to be”, vignettes about a past England which possibly never really existed. Of course now “Village Green” is more than well respected it’s deservedly a cherished artefact of the times. Lacking the broad strokes of “Tommy” or the expected grandeur of a Rock Opera it was in Ray’s words, “the most successful ever flop”. This time there was no hit single to help attract interest. (That would have been “Big Sky”, you hear? “Big Sky”).

 

Image result for the kinks drivinIn June 1969  “Drivin'” was our introduction to Ray’s next project. “Arthur (Or the Decline of the British Empire)” the soundtrack to a TV play that was never made. The LP was released later in the year & if anything his concept & vision is more fully realised this time around. Y’know I could name 20 or more Kinks singles without consulting the Google & “Drivin'” would not be one of them. That’s not because of any drop in quality, play it twice & hum it all day, more an indication that the group were no longer an automatic choice for the playlist on the UK’s only music radio station. On the b-side was “Mindless Child of Motherhood”, a brilliant Dave Davies track recorded for an intended solo LP that unfortunately we never heard. The Kinks may have been stuttering a little in 1969 but form is temporary while class is permanent. The next time out “Lola”, you know it, put them back where they belonged. The Kinks – God save ’em!

 

 

Down in that London on the 7th of June there was evidence of the British love of free stuff when 120,000 turned up in Hyde Park for a gig by a band yet to release a record & making their live debut. If Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood thought that their new collaboration could be a low-key affair they were wrong. Joined by drummer Ginger Baker, another former member of Cream & bassist Rick Grech who left Family to complete the line up & Blind Faith was immediately labelled a “supergroup”. An expectant audience spent a pleasant sunny afternoon in the Park but an under-rehearsed set of unfamiliar songs was not perhaps the soundtrack they anticipated.

 

Image result for blind faith hyde park free concertsThe band’s eponymous debut LP is a fine example of British Rock. The extended Blues jams of Cream are avoided but so are their power & dexterity. I probably liked “Well All Right”, the Buddy Holly cover, more then than I do now. Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” & Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord”, two very good songs, are better realisations of the band’s intentions. A US arena tour opened at Madison Square Garden & Eric found in Delaney & Bonnie, the support act, a group he really wanted to play with. Blind Faith broke up, Steve Winwood went back to Traffic & recorded the sublime “John Barleycorn Must Die”. Well, that was quick, Blind Faith were not so super after all.

 

Into The Groovy (Soul June 1969)

In the Summer of 69 I was 16 going on 17, you know what I mean, & the money in my pocket was not going to match the lifestyle to which I aspired. (I’m joking, none of these things that I do have ever amounted to a “Lifestyle”). My hometown steel plant employed temporary student labour but paid a lower rate to under-18’s so my Dad, a life-long socialist & keenly aware of the exploitative nature of the surplus value of labour, hooked me up with a friend’s construction company. It was my first proper work, the paper route didn’t count, & I loved it. The physical aspect of the job was enjoyable, they let me use the cement mixer, how cool was that? I may have been the butt of the older guys’ banter (there’s no such thing as tartan paint!) but it kept you fit & sharp. The holding folding for the weekend, after Mum had taken her cut (it’s OK, I owed her), well that was the point.

 

Oh yeah, the radio played all day long & there were some good ones about in June 1969. The UK Top 10 included the Beatles, Jethro Tull, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson & CCR. The feelgood hit of the summer, the  #1 record on the Billboard R&B chart for the whole of June & most of July, was a song that did it for me then & still does now.

 

 

Image result for marvin gaye too busy thinking about my babyAt the end of 1968 Marvin Gaye had cleaned up, deservedly so, with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. A worldwide hit it became the biggest selling single for Motown, a label that was no stranger to the people who handed out gold records. Norman Whitfield had co-written “Pride & Joy” Marvin’s first US Top 10 record. With the departure from the company of ace producing/writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, already well established, he stepped up his game. His work with the Temptations became more ambitious & experimental while for Marvin, re-working songs from his own back catalogue, Whitfield constructed perfect Pop-Soul classics. “Grapevine”, a recent hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, became an ominous cry of betrayal & disbelief while “Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby”, originally on a 1966 Temptations’ LP, a joyous declaration of love. You hear that opening “Ah-ah-ha, Oh Yeah” & you know that here comes 3 minutes of happiness. A beautiful record, a consummate follow-up tailor-made to enhance Marvin’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost Soul singers.

 

Marvin Gaye, always a complicated man, was not in a good place in 1969. His early ambitions to emulate his idol Nat King Cole were now outdated as times changed, he had been deeply affected by the onstage collapse & subsequent illness of Tammi Terrell, his partner for a spectacular run of hit duets. His relationship with Berry Gordy, his brother-in-law as well as his label boss, was turbulent. A period of depression & introspection allied to a desire for the greater autonomy that other Soul artists were enjoying realised a flourishing creativity & an individual form of expression that genuinely moved Soul music forward. I’m sorry but if you don’t think that “What’s Going  On” (1971) is a cornerstone of modern American music then it’s unlikely that we could ever be friends.

 

 

Image result for supremes no matter what sign you areSticking in Detroit with Motown at #25 in the chart of June 21st was the latest 45 from the label’s premier female unit. These were unstable times for the Supremes, now known as Diana Ross & the… The drawn-out, messy departure of Florence Ballard, replaced by Cindy Birdsong, affected the group’s popularity. Despite Diane’s star treatment fans held all three of the original members in high regard. The rich seam of smash hits from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line was drying up. In 1968 while “Love Child” became an 11th #1, other singles including  the marvelous H-D-H song “Forever Came Today”, were less successful. Plans for Ms Ross’ solo career were fixed & ready to be given the green light.

 

I liked “No Matter What Sign You Are”, the Age of Aquarius was thing back then. The trio, fixtures on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, give it plenty in their glittery, fringed finery. Diana is lip-synching to her own voice, Mary & Cindy were not needed in the studio where the Andantes took care of the backing vocals. Written by Berry Gordy & Hank Cosby it was intended to be the group’s farewell record but despite this groovy prime-time promotion it did not achieve the success anticipated by the label. Later in the year “Someday We’ll Be Together Again” was a more appropriately valedictory choice, the group’s 12th & final US #1 song. The phenomenon that was Diana Ross & the Supremes were now two separate acts.

 

 

Back in the very olden days when I didn’t know much about anything at all (& didn’t need to) I had a strong feeling that I really did like the records made by the Coasters. In 1958/9 the group, based in New York, had 3 UK Top 20 hits with irrepressible, irreverent story-songs, my first experience of cool American humour & probably my initial exposure to Rhythm & Blues. Both “Yakety Yak” & “Charlie Brown” featured  exciting, honking saxophone insertions played by a young Texan establishing himself on the NY session scene. Later, when I became aware of just how good King Curtis was, I wasn’t surprised that he had caught my ear previously.

 

Image result for king curtis instant groove“Instant Groove” was a new entry on the Billboard R&B chart this week at #35. King, Curtis Ousley, had signed with Atlantic & assembled a group of the finest session players in New York. “Memphis Soul Stew” was as succulent as it sounds, each ingredient/instrument successively introduced to the pot, a recipe for a spicy, effervescent brew that few instrumentals could match. “Instant Groove” is exactly what it says on the label. Originally recorded & produced by KC with his “Orchestra” (including young Jimi Hendrix) as “Help Me” for Ray Sharpe in 1966, the following year the “Gloria” inspired riff reappeared on Aretha Franklin’s first LP for Atlantic as “Save Me”. The NYC Funk version features a great bass solo by Jerry Jemmott. He & the other Kingpins, Richard Tee (keyboards), Cornell Dupree (guitar) & Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (drums) could play any music put in front of them. When they played with King Curtis he brought out their Soul.

 

Image result for king curtisBy 1971 King Curtis was at the apex of his career. In March he & the Kingpins supported & backed Aretha Franklin for 3 concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Live albums of the occasion were released by both artists. “Soul Train”, a new TV programme called when a theme tune was required. The actual John Lennon needed half a pint of horn for a couple of tracks on “Imagine” & KC, who had been on the undercard at Shea Stadium back when Beatlemania was a thing, was the best man for the job. In August of that year, on the steps up to his Manhattan apartment, he became involved in an argument with a couple of drug dealers & was fatally stabbed, he was 37 years old. Tragic.

New Music For June 2019

“Yawn” by Bill Ryder-Jones was the best album of 2018. Not some 14 day wonder that catches your ear, gets a few plays because of the novelty of having shiny new music around the house before returning to the tried & tested, it’s a record that has impressed me more than any others by “newer” artists that have crossed my path. “Yawn” still shares a place at the front of the stack with recent releases by Edwyn Collins, J.J. Cale & Wreckless Eric, musicians who have been a treasure & a pleasure for a long time now. This week Bill announced the upcoming release of “Yawny Yawn”, a re-imagining of his record for just voice & piano. Of course I’m going to be interested in such a project, even more so after seeing & hearing the first track he has made available.

 

 

Image result for bill ryder jonesBill says that “ I presume at some point I felt that the original had too much pep”, an example of the man’s dry wit. He’s a master of matter-of-fact Merseyside melancholia &, as he sings, “there’s a fortune to be had from telling people your sad”. “Yawn” has it’s share of loss, regret & introspection that I find to be honest & emotional rather than miserable. The soundscapes & sometimes surprising guitar interjections certainly add power & beauty to the songs but “Don’t Be Scared I Love You”, already a little cracker, sounds just fine in its new sparse arrangement. Bill’s lyrics are strong enough to stand the stripped-back treatment & when “Yawny Yawn” is released on July 26th I for one will be on it.

 

So what else is new?

 

 

Image result for whitney bandI was talking up Whitney’s “Light Upon the Lake” album all those years ago in 2016.  We have to wait until the end of August for “Forever Turned Around” & this week the group have given us a taste with the almost instrumental “FTA” & “Giving Up”. “Light…” came around at a time when I was feeling that some of my favourite US artists had perhaps become a little predictable, their best work already done. Whitney’s fresh light touch, melodic Indie with soulful folky undertones appealed as precisely the update that Americana needed. The group checked for Levon Helm (Julian Ehrlich is another singing drummer) & Allen Toussaint & while they are hardly as Funky as Lee Dorsey (who is?) these are pretty good names to aspire to. The smooth swoop of Max Kakacek’s guitar brought to mind George Harrison & still does, another pretty good influence to have around. Julian’s individual, distinctive voice is a taste I’ve been happy to acquire, “Giving Up” bodes well for the new collection, that trumpet/guitar break is just lovely. Bring It On.

 

 

Image result for the skints swimming lessonsIt’s within living memory that I was tagging the Skints as the best young band in the UK. “Swimming Lessons”, the group’s 4th album, is the expected conflation of dubby reggae, rap & punky power chords blended with assurance & energy. They are a 4-piece with 3 vocalists who all get their turn on lead. Marcia Richards has the sweetest voice while guitarist Joshua chats his conscious lyrics. It’s Jamie, the drummer/singer, who has always hit the spot with UK Pop Reggae that would not be out of place on an early Dennis Brown LP.. At their best the Skints bring to mind the Specials, a group who combined Ska & social commentary with commercial appeal more effectively than any other. Perhaps none of the new tracks stand out like “This Town” or “The Cost of Living is Killing Me” though a little more time spent with “The Island”, a no holds barred state of the nation address, could change my mind. The Skints are growing up, the range of their music is ambitious & always worth a listen because they get it & they get it right.

 

OK that’s 3 & “Humanworld”, the new LP from Peter Perrett arrived this week, time will definitely be made for that. It’s a proper treat to hear more new songs from the former member of the Only Ones after so long away from the studio. Yesterday I discovered that there’s an upcoming Richard Hawley record. It keeps you busy all this new music business, I’m not surprised that people stick to the things they already know & love!

In The Air (UK Pop Psych May 1969)

Pete Townshend, off of the Who, got his flatmate/chauffeur a record deal with his managers’ label. John “Speedy” Keen had written “Armenia City in the Sky”, recorded by the Who on their “Sell Out” LP. A couple of other musicians were invited to the studio, Pete produced & played bass & by May 1969 there was a ready-to-release debut 45. In the first week of July “Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman, you know it, everybody does, displaced the Beatles’ “Ballad of John & Yoko” from the top of the UK charts. It’s a distinctive, accomplished record, perhaps diminished by its overuse in films about the period & commercials, but back then it sounded like the zeitgeist, of not only music but also of the way things were, had been captured on a 7″ plastic disc.

 

 

Image result for thunderclap newmanThey were an incongruous trio Thunderclap Newman. Drummer/vocalist Keen had the songs. Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, prodigiously talented, was just 15 years old (he looked younger!) when the single was released. Andy Newman was 26 (he looked older!), his boogie-woogie/honky-tonk piano insertions added a different even unique dimension to the music. Surprised by instant success & under-rehearsed, hurriedly augmented by a rhythm section, the group set out on a tour of small UK venues. They were the hottest band in the country but, as we shall see later, their mentor Pete Townshend was busy with other things.

 

Image result for thunderclap newman hollywood dreamIt took another year, a long time in Pop music, for Thunderclap Newman to complete their debut LP, “Hollywood Dream”. I know a lot of people who like a lot of different music & many great obscure albums from this time are not that “lost”, they can be found round at my friends’ houses. It’s only this month (as part of y’know “research”) that I have listened to the whole of this record & it seems that an interesting, varied, adept work has passed all of us by for so long. Speedy’s voice may be a taste to be acquired but the songs have a touch of Ray Davies Englishness to them. Jimmy is an obvious talent, handling that acoustic/electric blend that Townshend was so good at while Andy’s idiosyncratic keys ties the whole thing together. I had always thought that the follow-up 45 “Accidents”, released in June 1970, cut from 10 minutes to 3, was a hit too but I thought wrong. “The Reason” was too similar to “Something …” to make an impression. There was to be just this one LP before the trio went their separate ways. Missed opportunities & poorly scheduled releases meant that Thunderclap Newman would be a one-hit wonder & what a hit it is.

 

 

Image result for idle race days of broken arrowsMeanwhile in May there was a new single from the Idle Race, their fourth to be issued in the UK. “Days of Broken Arrows” was one to hear because the ones that came before were pretty good. Perhaps they had missed their main chance when, in February 1968, “The Skeleton & the Roundabout”, a whimsical tale of the ups & downs of fairground life, had failed to sell despite support from some DJs on the national Radio 1. The demise of the 24 hour a day pirate stations did mean that lesser known groups struggled for attention & a follow-up, the Beatle-esque “The End of the Road”, was similarly neglected after making an initial splash. Idle Race evolved from the Nightriders, a leading group on the Birmingham scene. When the group lost a couple of major players they enlisted a young singer/guitarist with a stash of songs influenced by the Fab Four. You may not have heard Idle Race but you know the work of Jeff Lynne.

 

Image result for idle raceThere are two albums by this incarnation of the Idle Race. Inventive instrumentation & production, light on psychedelia, heavy on the influence of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” & very good they are too. Lynne’s lyrics are idiosyncratic though the collections, like the singles, perhaps lacked the immediacy & the substance to attract a wider audience. Any fan of late-1960’s British Pop will not be disappointed on further investigation. Jeff’s next move was to join the Move, led by former Nightrider Roy Wood. Wood knew how to put the flesh on the bones of a song & make it a hit. “Brontosaurus”, their first recording together, made the UK Top 10. A more confident Lynne eventually usurped Wood as the Move metamorphosed into the Electric Light Orchestra & a bunch of platinum records followed. Post-E.L.O. he moved into production & the rest, or some of it at least, is Wilbury.

 

 

So, on May the 17th 1969 The Who released a double album, a concept album, a Rock Opera no less, about a deaf, dumb & blind boy. Pete Townshend had always been interested in the Art of Pop & while he was a master of the 3 minute single was frustrated by its limitations. There had been an attempt to link songs on “A Quick One” in 1966, the jingles & commercials of “The Who Sell Out” gave a great album an entertaining continuity. “Tommy” was to realise Pete’s big idea, he had given it away in interviews & then had to write the music so that the record walked it like he talked it. Recording sessions were interrupted because the Who had to play gigs, they needed the money. Failure was not a option.

 

Image result for the who tommy albumWe had been given a taste of things to come with the single “Pinball Wizard” in March. Three non-album 45’s had been released in the previous year & however much I liked them there had not been the group’s accustomed commercial success. “Pinball Wizard” is, of course, now a classic & it sounded like one in 1969. It put the Who back on the UK & US charts, the perfect lead-in for the album. “Rock Opera” may have been the tagline of the day but thankfully there was more of the former than the latter. The grand opener “Overture” introduces musical themes to come while confirming that Townshend, Entwistle & Moon were the most imaginative of music’s great power trios (proof of Daltrey’s expanded vocal range came later). The libretto may have been vague in parts but Tommy’s amazing journey struck a chord with a bigger wold-wide audience than the Who had ever attracted before. In the summer of 1969 “Tommy” was all the rage.

 

The Who - Stonehenge Rock Bar - September 1978 - Mini PrintWhatever your opinion on the growing aggrandisement of Rock at this time, an ambition to be more expansive possibly to the detriment of the adrenaline rush of a perfect Pop 45, there’s no doubt that “Tommy” contributed, as Pete intended, to a more serious consideration of popular music. He was just 23 years old when he challenged his developing talent to find a new way to tell a story. None of that old stuff like writing a novel, making a movie or painting a picture but y’know, for the kids. Now, 50 years later, when a shot of the Who’s Maximum R&B is just what you need the Pop Art of the preceding albums can do the trick. The sheer heft of “Live at Leeds” & “Who’s Next” are unmatched while “Quadrophenia” can be considered a more successfully realised “concept” than Pete’s first attempt. If “Tommy” is your selection there will be no reduction in quality.  It’s a great album, a landmark in the development of our music. Here, have another track.

 

Turning It Loose (Soul May 1969)

The higher reaches of the Billboard R&B chart for May 23rd 1969 were packed with legendary names. The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Marvin Gaye & Aretha Franklin were all being denied the top spot by Joe Simon, a singer who is less widely remembered but back then was enjoying his biggest hit. “The Chokin’ Kind”, another song from master tunesmith Harlan Howard, had been a 1967 Country hit for Waylon Jennings. It was picked up by Nashville-based Joe, given a smooth Soul treatment & a crossover smash was inevitable.

Meanwhile at #8 a great band had another great tune.

 

 

Image result for booker t time is tightThis clip has been here before & when we finally get this time machine working then set the controls for the Oakland Coliseum on New Year’s Eve 1970 when Booker T & the M.G.’s opened for Credence Clearwater Revival. The older guys had jammed with CCR & wanted to show just what they could do onstage. The exceptionally talented quartet didn’t get around much anymore, kept busy in the Stax Memphis studios where they played on most of the music made in that label’s ascendant years, writing & producing many of the hits. While Credence watch admiringly from the wings that driving beat from drummer Al Jackson & Duck Dunn’s loping bass lay a solid foundation for Steve Cropper’s stinging guitar lines & Booker T’s swirling Hammond organ. The joy & compatibility of the ensemble is obvious. the trademark sound one of the wonders of the world of Soul Music.

 

Image result for booker t and the mgs poster“Time Is Tight” was written for the soundtrack of “Up Tight”, a film about Black militancy which sits between “In the Heat of the Night” & the upcoming Blaxploitation trend. The group’s albums were often loaded with covers of the hits of the day. This soundtrack, mostly original material written by Booker T Jones, Jazz & Blues influences in the foreground, is one of their most interesting. The single version of “Time Is Tight”, slower, succinct, building to an exciting crescendo, a highlight of a very impressive body of work, is just a click away. ( Here in the UK we hold particular affection for “Soul Limbo”, for many years the intro to TV coverage of cricket).

 

 

Earlier in 1960’s Phil Spector, the Tycoon of Teen, had kept US Pop interesting in the doldrums between Elvis joining the Army & the Fab Four appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Holed up in the echo chambers of Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios with some ace session players & a gang of drummers he & his crew meticulously pieced together a “Wall of Sound” on a string of hits. In 1966 he spent heaps of time & money on getting “River Deep-Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner just how he wanted it. Here in the UK where we got good taste, the song was recognised as a Spector master work, the US didn’t get it & the single stalled at #88 in the Pop charts. We now know that an easily bruised ego was the least of his personality problems but it would be 3 years before Spector re-entered a studio for a Ronettes 45 & then this one at #28 & rising.

 

Related imageCheckmates Ltd, 5 guys from Indiana, had released a few unsuccessful singles & a couple of live albums before attracting the attention of the star producer. Spector’s deal with A&M would get them out there & “Black Pearl” was the first track from an LP that gave frontman Sonny Charles lead billing. I loved the depth, drama & scope of Spector’s teen symphonies & this, like those other ones, sounded great on the radio. Half of the album “Love Is All We Have To Give” is a fine addition to & send-off for the Wall of Sound. There’s a heart-wrenching title track, a dynamic arrangement of “Proud Mary” that Ike Turner was happy to take for himself & a couple of updates from Phil’s New York apprenticeship with Leiber & Stoller. Side 2 is a 20 minute long orchestral selection from the musical “Hair” & no-one wants to hear that.

 

 

Image result for marva whitneyThe influence of last month’s chart-topper was already becoming evident & there are two cover versions of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” among the new entries this week. At #45 was the Hammond organ-heavy Senor Soul. Four of their members would become War & their time, their big time, would come soon enough. The highest newcomer, at #38, is Marva Whitney, Soul Sister #1 with “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who To Sock It To)”, a kind of cover version, a kind of answer record. The Isleys had taken much inspiration from James Brown’s sound & it was only right that he & his band should have their say about it. Live, beautiful in living colour on “The Mike Douglas Show”…marvellous!

 

IImage result for marva whitney it's my thingn 1968 Marva replaced Vicki Anderson as featured female vocalist in the James Brown Revue. Her boss was the money-maker for King Records so she got to make discs with her own name on the label. The records made with Vicki, Marva, Lyn Collins & his various backing musicians are sure enough Funky, brilliant satellites orbiting the star’s own. This incredible clip is tagged as Marva & the J.B.’s. There’s James conducting the hazy figures of the band who were still the Famous Flames on the records & I reckon, the James Brown Orchestra on stage. I’m sure that Maceo Parker is on saxophone, Jimmy Nolen, guitar but I would be wishing & hoping about the other players. No matter, how about that band! The following year Marva & everyone else quit over unresolved grievances with The Godfather of Funk & their replacements, they were the J.B.’s. That group could play a bit too.

 

 

Brothers Gonna Work It Out (Soul April 69)

So the Billboard R&B charts from 1969 Episode IV …a new hope indeed. I’ve not looked ahead but this series is sure to run & run, the only problem with finding 3 (the magic number) tunes to feature is which ones to leave out. April 1969 looks like being the best month yet & I’m pretty sure that it’s going to have to be 4 selections this time around. I’m teasing…it’s 4. So, let’s start at the very beginning with the #1 R&B record of the day.

 

 

Image result for isley brothers concert poster“It’s Your Thing”, still a wow after 50 years, still a fresh & funky anthem. When , in 1966, the trio,  Rudolph, O’Kelly & Ronald, signed with Tamla Motown they had already been making records for 10 years. Things started well & their first LP, largely overseen by Motown’s A Team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, included the immaculate “This Old Heart of Mine”. The group knew how the music business worked & felt that subsequent songs & promotion provided by the label were not from the top shelf. Here in the UK we knew the original recordings of “Shout”, a hit for Lulu & of course “Twist & Shout”. We loved their Motown stuff & judicious re-releases brought the Isleys 4 Top 20 hits in 1968-9. How in the heck the label & the USA had missed out on the thunderous “Behind A Painted Smile” remains a mystery.

 

Image result for isley brothers it's your thingAfter a successful UK tour they decided that they should do what they wanna do, left Motown & resurrected, unused since 1964, T-Neck, their own label. With their own songs, their own production/arrangements & their kid brother, 16 year old Ernie on bass the Brothers showed that they had not only been listening to Sly & the Family Stone & James Brown but they absolutely got the new Funk. The family that played together took their New Thing, a surefire smash, a Grammy Award winner, ran with it & refined a style based around Ronald’s distinctive vocals & Ernie’s prominent lead guitar. The group’s time came in 1973 when the “3+3” album began an unbroken run of gold & platinum selling records which lasted into the next decade. There are landmark songs across their long career & “It’s Your Thing” is a pivot between Isley Soul & Isley Funk.

 

 

Image result for joe Tex advertBetween numbers 30-40 there is a cluster of newcomers to the chart. The Impressions, Percy Sledge, Ann Peebles & the Meters are favourites of mine, all of them over there on those shelves, but it’s the highest new entry of the week, in at #30, that makes the cut. Since “Hold What You’ve Got”, his breakthrough hit in 1964, Joe Tex made a lot of records that scored on the R&B charts without crossing over to the mainstream. “I Want To (Do Everything For You)” & “A Sweet Woman Like You” both made #1. None of his 14 Top 20 discs between 1964-68 troubled the UK chart compilers, we even missed “Skinny Legs & All” but we knew who he was. Every local British Soul band included “Show Me” in their set & many of them attempted “S.Y.S.L.J.F.M.”.

 

Image result for joe tex buying a bookThere’s an attractive genial good humour in the records of Joe Tex. He could rip up the dance floor then switch to a fine line of semi-spoken homilies, all delivered with a chuckle in his warm voice. I’d compare him to a Southern preacher but his advice could often concern rather earthy matters. “Buying A Book” has been a particular favourite since its inclusion on a home-made mixtape (from the radio, remember that?) which, in the early 1980’s, reminded me just how much I loved classic Soul music. This story of the perils of May to September romances remains so because it’s such a well put together record, the brass, the backing vocals & Joe Tex telling it like he sees it. Great stuff.

 

 

 

On the chart that keeps on giving there are names on the labels on the songs between 41 & 50 that are legendary. At #50 Sly & the Family Stone had “Stand” backed with “I Want to Take You Higher”, a show-stopper at the Woodstock Festival later in 1969. #43 was none other than Howlin’ flipping Wolf! “Evil” was from an album that matched the great Bluesman with younger musicians, a formula that his label Chess had previously used for Muddy Waters. Mr Wolf thought the record was “dog shit” (“Why don’t you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off in the lake – on your way to the barber shop?”) but it’s so great to see Chester Burnett’s name on the list among Archie Bell & the Drells & Bobby Womack. At #46 was an extraordinary song by Nina Simone & if you think I’m able to knock out a couple of crisp paragraphs capturing her magnificence then you must be crazy!

 

Related imageBack in the mid-1960’s, when it came to female vocalists, I was all about Dusty & Aretha. I’d hear Ella or Billie & knew that there had been something special going on before then. Nina Simone’s Jazz & Broadway standards seemed to be for an audience more mature than myself but as she included more contemporary material on her records it became apparent that the “High Priestess of Soul” had a talent to inhabit & express emotion in song like few others. I bought her live “Black Gold” LP (1970) with her interpretation of “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life”, the best thing to come out of the shoddy, sensationalist musical “Hair”. There’s a 10 minute version of the celebratory “Young, Gifted & Black” & a chilling, perfect exegesis of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”. Nina Simone’s music, its forthright integrity on record & in live performance, continues to thrill. Many people make great music, not so many make great Art.

 

Image result for nina simone revolution“Revolution” is Nina Simone’s take on the Beatles’ (John Lennon’s) song of the same name. It keeps the same structure, the “It’s gonna be alright” & that’s about it. It’s not an “answer” record more an indication that pacifist idealism, a white millionaire imagining no possessions & that all you need is love, is less of an option if you are young, gifted & black living in a racist society where “the only way that we can stand in fact is when you get your foot off our back”. Written by Nina & her bandleader Weldon Irvine the swinging studio version, with a Sunday morning choir & a discordant ending, is a powerful statement. This strong live version, an excerpt from her performance at 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts celebrating the best of African-American music, features her terrific backing unit. Conscious music, an irresistible groove & Nina Simone, these are a few of my favourite things.

 

 

Image result for james carr to love somebodyI am not the biggest fan of the Bee Gees. At the height of their Disco dominance a British comedy group released the parody “Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices” & that still raises a smile. It is undeniable that the Gibb brothers have written some very good songs, Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” is a perfect thing & shows just how soulful they could be. At #44 on the chart was James Carr with a song apparently written for Otis Redding. I’ve not heard all of the many cover versions of “To Love Somebody” but have long thought that it is difficult to mess up such a well-crafted song. Released in 1967 it was soon picked up by American artists. The Sweet Inspirations, the best backing vocalists of the time were first, it was the title track of a Nina Simone LP & the great James Carr was the one who did bring it to Memphis. I feel that I’ve gone on a little too long today but I couldn’t leave April 1969 behind without including a favourite Soul singer of mine & a fine record. If you are interested I wrote about the complicated life of James Carr here. OK I can’t wait to see what May brings.

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…