Danny Remembers Some Nights In 2017

Danny McCahon, the noted Scottish playwright & an authority on Glam Rock, is another of our end-of-year regulars. It’s always a pleasure to hear from him & I do sometimes canvass more regular contributions but our Danny is a busy man. This year he was very excited to meet one of his musical heroes & that memorable evening was sure to be top of his list.


Before the Clash was the only band that mattered, there was Mott The Hoople. And while a young Mick Jones was following the hardest working band in the land up and down the country, my mates and I were passing around the lead singer’s book, “Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”. Written on the road during the band’s tour of the United States in November and December 1972, Ian Hunter’s witty expose stripped away any notion of glamour and laid bare all the warts of a band the appeared destined to always be on the up but never make it. But at the end of the tour, as Hunter headed back to his London flat thinking about cleaning up the cat dirt from the kitchen floor he knew the band was bigger than the last time he’d set foot in Blighty.



Image result for ian hunter rant band southamptonWithin a couple of hit-filled years, Mott The Hoople was finished, but Hunter never put down his guitar and almost 44 years after I first saw him on stage at Glasgow Apollo, Ian Hunter gave me the best show I saw in 2017. A 78 years of age he and his assembly of great players, The Rant Band, held the audience at Southampton’s Engine Rooms in thrall for more than two hours. And to make the night even more of a thrill, I had a few beers with the great man afterwards. Whoever said you should never meet your heroes obviously hadn’t had a chat with Ian Hunter. A true gent, he listened to me gush about that first show at The Apollo and added his own memories of the night. We both agreed that the Apollo bouncers were a breed apart.


The show had many highlights but I had goosebumps when The Rant Band backed their leader on this hit released by Hunter and his band a few months after their return from that US tour and reflecting the mood of the classic book. Absolutely joyous. I walked back to my hotel that night, a bit drunk on beer supplied by Ian Hunter, convinced I had just met The Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.


In Year Zero when the Clash did matter, one of the most interesting guys on the Glasgow music scene went by the name of Jimmy Loser. Jimmy knew stuff, about books and films and especially about music. He played guitar and wrote songs and he and I became mates. During quiet drinking sessions in anonymous Glasgow pubs, Jimmy and a few others filled me in on what had been happening before I looked beyond Glam Rock. One band we did share a love of was Mott The Hoople.


Long after Sid had died and Malcolm had got bored, Jimmy was still writing songs and, to paraphrase his own lyric, the Loser became King and put together a band that, after another sensational combo, for me is the best band ever to come out of Glasgow.



Image result for james king and the lonewolves mcchuillsJames King and the Lonewolves did things their way. Always. And the use of a cussword on the BBC’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” slowed their rise. But not forever. James brought the band back together and released an album in 2014. I’ve seen them quite a few times since that reunion and this year they gave me one of my favourite nights out. In November they took the stage at Glasgow’s finest live music pub, McChuill’s. (Free gigs in 2017!)


Jimmy is still writing good tunes and a new album is planned but in a set that filled McChuill’s with more power than I’ve heard anyone else ever do, the live reinterpretation of the song that had upset the Beeb was a highlight.



Image result for barry adamson king tut'sAnother famous Glasgow venue provided a third live highlight. We all like Magazine and The Bad Seeds, but it’s his solo work that has made bassist Barry Adamson a big favourite of mine. He showed up alone on the stage at King Tut’s and played a full band show. The set was, as the young folks might say, all killer but Big Bad Barry threw in a few surprises including this hit from his first band.





I do more than nostalgia and don’t only listen to old tunes resurrected by men of a certain vintage. And here’s a record from Jane Weaver, who I saw play last week, to prove it. If a single is still a thing, this was my single of the year. (Peter Perrett’s was my album of the year.)


There’s not many men round here who’ve still got their Meccano sets, you know! (Liz Smith)

Image result for liz smith hard labourI first became aware of Liz Smith, who died this week aged 95, in 1973 when she starred in “Hard Labour”, a BBC TV drama directed by Mike Leigh & produced by Tony Garnett. The weekly “Play for Today”, like its predecessor “The Wednesday Play”, was a forum for many emerging British talents. The strand encompassed a wide variety of styles & subjects. It was the hard-hitting & effective social realist themes, a development from kitchen sink dramas of a decade earlier which often provoked controversy. “Hard Labour” was Leigh’s first TV play, it employs his improvisational technique to achieve a naturalism & a bleakness unleavened by the humour to be found in his later work. Mrs Thornley, harassed by her husband, patronised by her middle-class employer & offered no solace by her religion, is a study in isolation & limited communication. Liz Smith was outstanding in the part & she broke our hearts.

Image result for liz smith i didn't know you caredThere’s very little of “Hard Labour” on the Interwebs so let’s move on a couple of years to her next starring TV role. “I Didn’t Know You Cared” was a sit-com adapted from his own novels by Peter Tinniswood. It ran for 4 series from 1975-79, another slice of Northern life, this time across the Pennines in Yorkshire. The Brandon family were a wonderful parade of absurd characters, the men cloth-capped, gloomy & cynical, the womenfolk keeping a close eye on them & their faults. It had a terrific ensemble cast, was tougher than the long-running “Last of the Summer Wine”, with the gentleness & acerbity of Alan Bennett. At the heart was Liz Smith’s Mrs Brandon, hen-pecking, haranguing & hilarious, nailing some of the best lines of a very good bunch. Some right old toot from the same period is now recycled on the nostalgia channels with no sign of this classic British comedy.

Ms Smith was in her fifties before this acting thing really took off. Her talent to portray the slightly mad but always likeable Grandma found her plenty of work in film & TV & she quickly became a very recognisable character actor. Her cinema work included Lindsay Anderson’s “Britannia Hospital”, Ridley Scott’s debut “The Duellists” & she was Lady Phillippa of Staines in Viv Stanshall’s brilliant “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End”. She was perfect for the BBC’s adaptations of Dickens & appeared in Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” classic episode “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite”. It would be 1984 before she gained recognition from her peers for her talents.

Handmade Films, a British production & distribution company, was formed by George Harrison when his Monty Python friends were struggling to finance “Life of Brian”. The story goes that George had to mortgage a house but I don’t think that he ever went short. In the next decade Handmade were involved with many fine British films. “A Private Function” (1984) is as close as this to the gentle, eccentric comedies made by Ealing Studios in the 1940s & 50s. Alan Bennett was an international success in 1960 with “Beyond the Fringe”. He continued to act while becoming better known as a writer for TV & theatre. This was his first screenplay, perhaps having less substance than his plays but no less lacking in the acuity Bennett has for language & the intricacies of social interaction & manners.

Image result for liz smith a private function“A Private Function” is set in post-Second World War Yorkshire when food was still rationed. The social climber Joyce Chilvers (Maggie Smith) is determined to make her mark in the town & intends to drag Gilbert, her chiropodist husband, (Michael Palin) along with her. A pig, being illegally fattened for a municipal celebration is kidnapped by the Chilvers & hilarity ensues…really it does. Along with the great writer & the two illustrious principals the cast involves an overflowing National Treasure chest. Denholm Elliott, Alison Steadman, Pete Postlethwaite & others all do their distinctive thing while Liz, as Joyce’s mother, driven mad by the smell of the secret pig, thinking that perhaps she could be the source of the odour, won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Image result for liz smith a private functionLiz continued to do the work, adding value to whatever she appeared in. In 1998 she was cast as Nana Norma in Caroline Ahern’s comedy “The Royle Family”.By this time she was 76 year’s old & the nation’s favourite grandmother, perfectly cast in a series which, along with Ricky Gervais’ “The Office” & Steve Coogan’s “I’m Alan Partridge” injected new energy & raised the standard of British situation comedy. “The Royle Family” was sometimes a kitchen sink drama but it was mostly on the living room sofa in front of the telly. The skillful characterisation, the pacing, the natural humour & affection made many people suspect that Aherne had placed a spy camera in their own homes to obtain material. This clip, from the 2006 special “The Queen of Sheba” where the new baby is introduced to the bedridden Nana will moisten the driest of eyes. A starring role in the UK’s most popular comedy brought Liz Smith even wider recognition &, in 2007, a British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actress.

Liz Smith was born in my hometown in Lincolnshire. She’s from the Crosby area up in the north of town. She attended the secondary school which, years later with a change of name, in a different building became my school. That may be why, even in those early days  before I knew of her origins, I found her performances to be so convincing. She reminded me & so many others of our own grandmothers except that perhaps my Nana Daisy actually knew her as young Betty Gleadle. Sad events have made this appreciation into an obituary & that’s a pity. It’s OK because I am reminded of the talent of Liz Smith by the old ladies I talk to at the bus stop, in the market & around my estate. For these women, who have lived through some times, have seen & learned some things, Liz Smith represented.

Leave Him Alone Lennon Or I’ll Tell Them All The Truth About You (Richard Lester)

Richard Lester was in the right place at the right time just too many times for it to purely down to his luck. He was a bright kid, graduating from college at 19. Within a year of becoming a stage hand at a Philadelphia TV station he was directing live shows. That sounds like the fast track but television was a new thing, the whole operation still seat-of-the-pants. If you said you could direct then you got to have a go, if you didn’t screw up then you got the job. In 1953, still only 21, he moved to the UK where his US experience & his ability to talk a good fight found him work with the new commercial station. Lester has said that he wanted to direct films so that he could shoot a second take. Whatever, the films he made in the 1960s retain the spontaneity & vivacity of someone with a liking for pointing a camera & seeing what happens.


The Goons were THE deal in 1950s British comedy. “Goonery” was a tangle of surreal wordplay, Army barrack room disregard for authority & the iconoclastic genius of Spike Milligan. The trio (Milligan, Peter Sellers & Harry Secombe) were looking to move from radio to TV & cinema. Richard Lester was the American, the outsider, with a developed & perverse visual sense who helped to do that. You know how Monty Python had Terry Gilliam…exactly like that. There were a couple of small British films, one for Walter Shenson who was to produce a film that the world & their teenage daughter was waiting for. John Lennon was a major fan of the Goons, he knew who Richard Lester was. The director was in the best place at the best time & got the job of his life.



“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) had to be a lot of things to a lot of people. United Artists may have wanted a cheap, quickly made film to cash-in on this temporary Beatlemania. Fans & their money were easily parted but there was a fascination with the personalities of 4 young Liverpudlians who made the almost irresistible music. Lester’s film contributed to the Mop Top iconography, presenting sanitized characterisations of each Beatle. It did a whole lot more & did it in the correct style. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a Day In The Life mockumentary, black & white, expeditious. There are nods to the French New Wave, the music video is invented before our very eyes for the best music around. The humour is gentle & knowing whether from the Fab Four or the excellent support cast of comedy actors. Oh & Paul’s Grandad (the incomparable Wilfred Brambell) is “very clean”. The film was a great success. I loved it as a young boy & over 50 years later it still rates 99% over at Rotten Tomatoes.


So England was swinging like a pendulum do & Richard Lester was helping out because we were so busy. Before he directed “Help”, the Beatles as an international phenomenon, in colour, on location & a little too zany, he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with “The Knack…& How to Get It”, a satire on the new sexual morality since the death of Queen Victoria in 1960 (© Spike Milligan). “The Knack”, though dated, is the quintessential British Mod movie. It’s stylish & energetic without making too much sense & stars Rita Tushingham, our kitchen sink princess. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966) was a little too busy, a musical-comedy that could use more of both. Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers &, in his final appearance, Buster Keaton are three good reasons to see the film.


In 1966 John Lennon gave some of his time & more of his hair to play Musketeer Gripweed in “How I Won the War”, an anti-war movie made with sharp wit & fast pace. “Petulia” (1968) with Julie Christie was made in the US & is very highly rated. It’s so long since I’ve seen this film…I’ll get back to you on this.



“The Bed Sitting Room” (1969) is, according to the Wiki,  an absurdist, post-apocalyptic, satirical comedy…it’s even better than that sounds ! Adapted from the play by Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the 20 British survivors of a blink & what just happened nuclear war attempt to preserve a degree of the old ways on the giant rubbish tip they are left with while dealing with unlikely & surprising mutations. The script is hilarious, the filming inventive & the cast is perfect. There are classical actors, Ralph Richardson, in the title role, Michael Hordern (I saw his King Lear that very year) & Mona Washbourne, a couple of Goons, stalwart comedy character actors including Arthur Lowe & Roy Kinnear & there’s Rita Tushingham. The show is almost stolen by Marty Feldman (Nurse Arthur) while Peter Cook & Dudley Moore were never funnier on film than they are here. “The Bed Sitting Room” is the bridge between the Goons & Monty Python, thought-provoking, very silly & from the top rank of British comedy movies. God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake !


In the next decade Lester’s budgets got bigger. “The Three Musketeers” (1973) became a bit too much of a comedy-action epic & was eventually released as 2 separate films. The starry cast were surprised by “The 4 Musketeers” (1974) as they had only been paid for the one movie ! “Juggernaut”, a shipboard disaster movie, didn’t really cut it & the following year’s “Royal Flash”, starring Malcolm McDowell, so disappointed writer George MacDonald Fraser that he blocked any further cinematic adaptations of his character.Richard going to Hollywood was inevitable but while these films were accomplished & entertaining, the individuality & vibrancy of his earlier work was diluted. By 1976 he was back on it & his next 2 releases are certainly a return to form.



In “Robin & Marion” (1976), our outlaw hero returns to England wearied by 20 years of full-on crusading. The Sheriff of Nottingham is still set in his evil ways & the verdant venturer is not about to walk away from a fight. Then, of course, the love of his life, Maid Marion, is still hanging out with the forest folk. Post-James Bond Sean Connery chose his film roles well & his gnarled knight schools Costner, Crowe or any of the other men in tights. The final showdown between Connery & Robert Shaw (the Sheriff), tough guys going at it right, is classy mid-70s cinema. Such a masculine Robin Hood needs a worthy Marion. The film’s coup was to persuade a great star to return to the movies after almost a decade away. Audrey Hepburn was no longer Holly Golightly but the camera still loved her. Her strong, beautiful even luminous Maid completes a lovely, mature, romantic film. I saw it again last week & absolutely enjoyed it just as much as 40 years ago.


OK, that’s three very good films so no room here for “The Ritz” (1976), an update on the screwball that gets it right. It’s a 1970s American comedy from the same top shelf as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks & Neil Simon. Lester had a continuing relationship with the producers of the musketeer movies who had moved on to the “Superman” franchise. The first film, starring Christopher Reeve, was a major success & when director Richard Donner was unavailable to complete the follow-up Lester re-shot “Superman II” (1980) & directed “…III” (the one with Richard Pryor). This was big box office stuff but there was not much more to come. The Musketeers were reunited for “The Return of…” (1989) which went straight to cable in the US & the Beatle connection got him the gig for “Get Back” (1991), a McCartney concert film.


Richard Lester’s films have not always aged well but they retain the energy & imagination of the 1960s. He worked with some major talents & made a major contribution to transferring their abilities on to the big screen. The 3 films I have highlighted here are of the highest quality. The others are pretty much a blast too.




The First Pop Songs In The World (Strength)

Here at loosehandlebars we have always appreciated an elite group of invited friends giving up their time & talent to contribute to the blog. It’s a delight to welcome Derry music legend, my great buddy, Paul Pj Mc Cartney, off of Bam Bam & the Calling, to these pages. Paul is going to put us on to one of his hometown’s hottest combos Strength. McCarts talks a lot of sense about a lot of things. Any time he wants to share something with us I’m sure that we will find a space for him.


I had a party in the house in late March 2010 to celebrate my 45th birthday, and some of the distinguished guests (arch-hooligans of the Derry Underground Music Community?) were late getting there because Strength were launching their double A-Sided single (on cassette) – ‘Do Televisions/Frankie Moore Ritual’ – in the Castle Bar on Waterloo Street. My good friend Sean Pemberton (he of Guadapenda Rosindale and Mars Field fame) brought me up a copy and it went straight into the stereo. I was automatically blown away, and knew I would have to get my ass along to their next show, and a few weeks later I witnessed their brave, beautiful and indeed confrontational music first hand and was smitten.


One thing I recall was seeing them not too long after that and remembering most of the songs from the first night and I think that’s a really telling thing. This was Strength Mark 1 – Rory Moore (vocals), John McLaughlin (synthesizer) and David McFeely (synthesizer). I think they played in the Castle about half a dozen times, and it was always an incredible experience that stayed with me for weeks after, and I was totally honoured when Rory invited me along to DJ twice. On a few of these occasions, when they finished a song, there was like a 3 or 4 second delay before the audience applauded. But that’s the magical and seductive whirlpool they draw you into when they play their fantastic songs, they take you on a trip Baby and the last thing you need is Drugs.


It’s not for someone like me to speculate on the actual influences the band have, they kinda keep that to themselves, just go out and let it loose. Their songs and their sound had me thinking of Scott Walker, The Young Marble Giants, Nick Cave, The Silver Apples, Suicide, the post-punk Dub excursions of Adrian Sherwood, Liquid Liquid and The Idiot era Iggy Pop. We are aware of their preference for vintage technology (Betamax videotapes are still on the agenda) , but they do it right and the sheer emotion they communicate when they play is nothing short of thrilling. And to the actual songs – the aforementioned ‘Do Televisions’ and ‘Frankie Moore Ritual’, ‘Disobedience’, ‘Hospital Beds And Drugs’, ‘I Like Compressions’, ‘Evil Part One’ and ‘Northern Ireland Yes’ are all totally different to each other , but form a whole, that has us lucky people looking down the barrel of one of the best Irish debut albums ever in my opinion.



I’m gonna cut to the chase and talk about the songs (in non-chronological order of course), here’s one that has transcended the line-up changes and they play and enjoy playing every night – ‘I Like Compressions’ – In effect, a regional hit, it made a chart of songs put together last year of songs released from bands and artistes from the North of Ireland. The difference here is that Strength didn’t actually put it out as a commercial release. The line-up playing in this video (and you’ve been introduced to Rory Moore already) is Conor McNamee, Neil Burns and Eoghan Doneghan, they are the current line-up. One thing this particular song shows also is that these guys can get pretty darn funky when the groove takes them, and there’s an added bonus here of a chorus you could park three-quarters of Iceland on, and you’ll be humming it for weeks after…as you do.



Next up, ‘Frankie Moore Ritual’, this was on the the cassette-only double A-Sided release from 2010, the other song being ‘Do Televisions’. They bring this one in at over 8  and a half minutes and it never dips as it goes, in fact, it’s all action start to finish. This one got me thinking of the Young Marble Giants when I first heard it, but also elements of early Orbital and the larky elements of the Stereolab EPs and Albums when Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas came on board. I would say that anyone who liked the ‘Turn On’ project Sean O’Hagan and Tim Gane put together in the late 1990’s will definitely dig this one. And you know the way some records end up opening up for a few minutes, and you think it’s an instrumental the whole way through and then a song happens, well this is one of them songs…don’t worry, I’m not giving away the plot.



“Northern Ireland Yes” is this year’s single. It’s another imaginative, hypnotic addition to their catalogue & deserved the wider attention that it received. The group are currently touring. This week, on the 7th of July, they are playing in Derry supported by our boys the Gatefolds. We need an LP of their tunes, in whatever retro-influenced format they choose. Keep an eye out for further news on their website. These guys are going from Strength to…(you see what I almost did there).



They Don’t Make Them Like This Any More

The first time I can remember being in a cinema was when I was taken to see “Tommy the Toreador”, a musical-comedy, poor music, worse comedy, starring a British rock & roller, Tommy Steele. A forgettable film but I was in a big dark hall with Mum, Dad & lots of other people, the screen was massive & there was ice cream…I’d be back. In the early 1960s I tagged along with the big boys to the Saturday morning children’s matinee, a manic, juvenile, sugar-rush flash-mob, where the management often had to stop the main feature & tell us to chill the fuck out…or else ! That was great too. In the school holidays we saw “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Zulu”, “It’s a Mad, Mad World”, a long list of good ones & a longer list of mediocrity. It was at home, in the living room, on a rainy Sunday afternoon that I first saw the timeless classics from a Hollywood golden age. Black & white movies on a small black & white TV that made me forget that I would rather be outside playing football & introduced me to the potency of well-made popular cinema. This week, for the first time in 50 years, I watched one of those films which left such an impression & I was not disappointed.



“It Happened Tomorrow”, a fantasy comedy, is not a title often mentioned when the great films of the 1940s are recalled. It was the storyline, a man receives tomorrow’s evening paper today, which intrigued & fired the imagination of my young self. The potential for advantage & for complication held an instant appeal. The film stars Dick Powell, a popular lightweight crooner who was, in 1944, looking to expand his range. In the same year he hit big in “Murder, My Sweet”, the first movie portrayal of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. I’m sure that I noticed Linda Darnell in the female lead, one of “Look” magazine’s 4 most beautiful women in Hollywood that year (my vote was for Gene Tierney). Jack Oakie, a veteran of 87 films, leads a cast of character actors who do that thing that they do. In modern cinema “ensemble” playing often involves little more than pulling in familiar faces to deliver a couple of lines (see the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar”). These supporting players worked at it as a job. It was the assurance & charm in the tale-telling that lodged “It Happened Tomorrow” in my memory. Back then I knew very little about the great film directors of the century of cinema. I know more now.


Clair & Ms Darnell

In the 1930s Rene Clair established a reputation as a pre-eminent French film director. There was a trilogy of movies, including “Le Million” (1931), which gained international success. These early “talkies” were marked by an original & creative use of the new technology (singing flowers ?). His portrayal of working-class Paris was perhaps nostalgic & romantic, though no more than Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s. His lightness of tone was later criticized by the New Wave but that’s what some of those directors (Truffaut, Demy) & French cinema does better than anyone. In 1940 he found himself stranded in New York when France lost World War II. Stripped of his citizenship by the Vichy government, Rene went to Hollywood. There are 4 American films directed by Clair & 3 of them are worth a viewing. “I Married a Witch” (1942), a darker, fantasy forerunner of the 1960s TV series “Bewitched”, is deft & devilish, 19 year old Veronica Lake casts a spell as the bitch/witch. “It Happened Tomorrow” is not even the best film of 1944 but it is a charming, funny example of a fine director & of the popular entertainment that the Hollywood studio system did so well. The final madcap 30 minutes bring to mind Capra, the Marx Brothers & Preston Sturges, good company to keep.



“The Big Heat” (1953) is another film that knocked me over as a teenager & this ridiculous trailer does not do it justice. It’s a tougher than tough revenge flick, an upright, obsessed cop looking to avenge the death of his wife & to put the bad guys where they belong. This movie prepared me for the hard-boiled fiction of Jim Thompson, the neon-lit night of Edward Hopper’s paintings, cinematic experiences like “Point Blank”, “The Godfather””, “Goodfellas” & “Reservoir Dogs”. Glenn Ford, an actor of limited range, is Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, more driven than Dirty Harry. Vince Stone, a gangster capable of extreme, stunning violence, is scarily played by Lee Marvin while Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh, his moll, an unforgettable doxie with the moxie, put me on to beautiful women who are mad. bad & dangerous to know (yeah, thanks for that Gloria !). I knew that this movie had a heart of darkness before I knew what film noir was. I knew that this lean, mean classic was the work of a master, back then I just didn’t know who that was.


Lang with Dietrich

Fritz Lang left Germany for Paris in 1934 on the day that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels informed him that one of his films would be banned & offered him the position as head of the studio UFA. Lang, an Austrian with a Jewish mother, knew the score. His Expressionist silent films “Dr Mabuse the Gambler” (1922) & the futuristic, dystopian “Metropolis” (1927) were ambitious & ground-breaking. “M” (1931), his first film with sound, is a Kafka-esque, microscopic study of a child murderer, played by Peter Lorre, another artist who got out of Germany in 1933. It established Lang as a master of cinema & 80 years on his reputation has not dimmed. He directed over 20 films in Hollywood. Often stymied by the strictures of genre & studio demands he struggled to equal his earlier work. When, as with “The Big Heat”, he had appropriate raw materials, he was an alchemist, turning celluloid into gold.



Fritz Lang directed 2 films in 1944. “Ministry of Fear” stars Ray Milland as a patient newly released from an asylum dragged into the paranoid world of espionage after guessing the weight of a cake correctly. They (Grahame Greene) don’t write ’em like that anymore. “The Woman in the Window” features Edward G Robinson, the Original Gangster star of the 1930s, as a university professor smitten by Joan Bennett, Lang’s choice of femme fatale in 4 of his films who finds only trouble back at her Fabulous Forties pad. In 1946 the film & others of the time with similar themes were released in postwar France & were dubbed “film noir”, a somewhat vague tag even then, anyway Lang had been making movies like these since “M”. “The Woman in the Window” is a psychological thriller, a melodrama, a now-maligned categorisation, it’s dark, tense & the supporting cast, particularly Raymond Massey & Dan Duryea, do their thing.


Audiences in those pre-TV days expected romance, fantasy, beautiful people & a good story from their movies. They were cinema-literate, they knew how films worked & there were directors like Clair, Lang & others with the imagination & ability to illuminate even subvert these conventions. When this is successful then you get a work that still affects some 70 years later. “The Woman in the Window” is on the Y-tube, the whole film. It would not be a waste of your time to get on over there.




I Want My Films To Get Audiences (Stephen Frears)

Stephen Frears, the British film director, served his apprenticeship in cinema at a time when London was swinging & homegrown cultural talents were finding an international audience. In 1966, when he was 25, Frears was assistant to director Karel Reisz (“Saturday Night Sunday Morning”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) on “Morgan:A Suitable Case for Treatment”, a brash comedy where David Warner’s Marxism switches from Karl to Harpo. He was P.A. to director/star Albert Finney for “Charlie Bubbles” (1967), a return to Manchester for the international star, Liza Minnelli’s film debut, the wonderful Billie Whitelaw & a script by Shelagh (“A Taste of Honey”) Delaney. As straight outta Salford as the Smiths. Frears was also an assistant to Lindsay Anderson for “If…” (1968), the best British film of the decade, a satire on a public school system that was anachronistic then (we all thought/hoped it would really be shot to hell) & still is now. The British Film Industry…remember that ? Blimey !


It was Albert Finney’s company that gave Stephen Frears his break as a director. “Gumshoe” (1971) stars Finney as Liverpudlian bingo caller Eddie Ginley whose Sam Spade/Bogart fantasies lead him up unlikely mean streets. It’s a smart spoof detective story, Ms Whitelaw & an outstanding cast of British character actors add value. The opportunities to make films were fewer & for the next decade Frears became established as a leading director of prestigious, quality one-off dramas made by both (!) TV companies which were as good as TV got in the 1970s. There were memorable collaborations with writer Alan Bennett. “Bloody Kids” (1980), a script by young gun Stephen Poliakoff, explores youth alienation, social discord, voyeurism & surveillance, the dark side of a society taking a wrong turn, it’s brilliant. In 1982 “Walter”, a moving story of a man with learning disabilities & his grim life in a psychiatric institution with a great performance by a young Gandalf, attracted much attention when it was the centrepiece of the opening night of Channel 4, a whole new TV channel.



In 1984 Frears returned to the big screen with “The Hit”. It’s an existential gangster road movie…triple whammy ! Of course I love it. Hit man Braddock (John Hurt) & his apprentice Myron (Tim Roth) are sent to Spain to sort out supergrass Parker (Terence Stamp), that’s quite a cast. Stamp, a major star in the 1960s, had a quiet 1970s (apart from being General Zod in 2 Superman movies). Here he’s not as volatile as he was in Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (1999). He’s accepting of & resigned to his fate & he’s up to something. John Hurt is vicious while Tim Roth, in his film debut as Myron, the YTS assassin (a part offered to Joe Strummer off of the Clash), is perfect as the young Brit abroad. Laura del Sol is a hostage in a very tight dress while the great Fernando Rey follows the trail of blood & bodies. The 1980s saw a revival of the British gangster film (those not featuring members of Spandau Ballet), “The Hit”, tense & tough, is one of the best.


There followed a run of Brit flicks. 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette” was a breakthrough role for Daniel Day-Lewis as a gay skinhead. Hanif Kureishi’s South London story of Johnny’s relationship with his childhood friend Omar was sensitively & effectively told & gained an international audience. “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) is the singular story of Joe Orton, playwright, a working class hero contemporaneous with John Lennon & his tragic relationship with Kenneth Halliwell. Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina are outstanding in the lead roles, Alan Bennett’s script is faultless. It’s my favourite of this phase of Frears’ career & it’s on the Y-tube, watching it again is time well spent. “Sammy & Rosie Get Laid” (1987) is another hook-up with Kureishi, another slice of urban life in Thatcher’s Britain.



These opening credits of “The Grifters” (1990), Los Angeles in black & white, Elmer Bernstein theme, signpost that there’s a film noir ahead. There’s some heavy hitters involved, produced by Scorsese, a screenplay by Donald E Westlake from a novel by pulp great Jim Thompson. Frears had directed the film of Christopher Hampton’s play “Dangerous Liaisons”, a large-scale European production with major Hollywood stars but this was his first American movie. The triangle of confidence persons is well cast. Young Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is still learning, painfully, the small-time scams. Myra (Annette Bening) offers more than the chance to score big while his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) has been working the angles longer than both of them. Any unflinching attempt to transfer Thompson’s dark spirit to celluloid would inevitably alienate a mass audience. “The Grifters” is tough & violent while diluting themes of incest & violent misogyny. It’s a glossy modern noir, no-one can be trusted & it’s bound to end badly for Roy. It became Frears’ first Academy Award nomination for best director.


That’s 7 feature films “directed by Stephen Frears” then & it’s not easy to pin him down to any individual style. His films effectively capture the often hermetic world of his characters, a car in Spain, a Vauxhall laundrette, an Islington bed-sit. Certainly his screenplay choices are impeccable & his skill is in delivering that quality to the screen. He is more than a safe pair of hands, able to adroitly blend drama & comedy. In the 1990s he returned from Hollywood to make parts 2 & 3 of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. They lacked the musical attraction of part 1 “The Commitments” but both “The Van” & “The Snapper” certainly retained the sweet soul. “Mary Reilly” (1996), another Hampton script starring Julia Roberts & John Malkovich with a $47 million budget was Frears’ first real stutter.



Like many European directors who make it to Hollywood Frears made his crime movie & then his western. “The Hi-Lo Country” (1998) is set in a post-World War 2 West so cannot be anything but elegiac. Woody H, Billy Crudup & Katy Jurado, a link to the great cowboy films. It’s been a while since I saw it but it has moved to near the top of the list. “High Fidelity” (2000) transposes Nick Hornby’s novel from North London to Chicago. “Fever Pitch” had dealt with the football & Hi-Fi covers those other 2 lynchpins of a boy’s life, music & women. All of us music obsessives have spent just enough time in record shops & too much time compiling Top 5 lists. No-one minded the transatlantic shift because if anyone is going to represent us then let it be John Cusack, by now a film star & he seems to be a nice guy. We don’t, perhaps, have Catherine Zeta Jones, Lisa Bonet or Iben Hjejle in our pasts but we’ve had our moments. Not sure we would contact our exes to ask about a break up, pretty sure we wouldn’t want to hear some of the answers. It’s only a movie & one that gets the tone right from Jack Black’s Monday morning tape to Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe” playing over the credits.


The later films of Stephen Frears have been mostly British or European productions. He has continued to work with talented writers, Steven Knight’s 1st screenplay “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), Steve Coogan “Philomena” (2013). He has also returned to directing event TV dramas in Britain & the US. I’m not too interested in the Queen so Helen Mirren as “The Queen” (2006) passed me by. There was great interest though, Ms Mirren scored an Oscar & Frears a nomination for best director. This film & “Philomena” made serious money from relatively low budgets, the kind of numbers that will keep a now veteran director in work. His latest film “The Program”, a dramatisation about the delusional, drug cheat bike rider Lance Armstrong, does not match the comprehensive documentaries on the same subject. Any road up, there’s another movie in post-production, Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins”, & a body of work, spanning 45 years, of such variety & quality that his reputation as an outstanding director is secure. Oh, I forgot to mention “Mr Jolly Lives Next Door” (1987), the funniest non-Python related thing ever shown on British TV !




Phasers Set On Smile (Spirit)

Spirit, a jazz-rock-blues-folk-psychedelic fusion group from Los Angeles were around in my teenage years. In 1970, when the original line up’s 4th, seemingly final LP was released I was still at school. At just 17, you know what I mean, there are so many new bright shiny things to divert you. ” 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus” was invigorating, inspiring music but would I still be affected by it 40 years later ? Don’t ask me, I was not sure what I was doing at the weekend. In 1972 there was an LP by a band which appeared to be Spirit in name only. Much more to my taste was “Kaptain Kopter & the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds” a dense, Hendrix-influenced collection by Randy California which showed him to be a fluid, inventive guitarist able to avoid the usual guitar hero cliches while still rocking out.


By the time there was another Spirit LP, in 1975, I was a married man… to a woman…really. I packed my lunch in the morning & went to work each day. It was a good time, we were Dinkys, (dual income, no kids yet), more money than sense. In 1975 I bought all the records I needed, plenty that I didn’t. “Spirit of 76” was definitely one that I needed.


Spirit Mark II were California, “Mr Skin”, drummer Ed Cassidy, with Barrie Keene on bass. The band had to scrape the money together to record, had to shop it around the labels, When Mercury did release the album it still pretty much remained a secret. “Spirit of 76” is a sprawling work, a statement double LP about the USA as it reached its bicentennial which starts with “America The Beautiful”, ends with “The Star Spangled Banner”. In between there’s a kaleidoscopic collection of tunes from perfectly judged covers, through Randy’s own mix of muscular rock & melodicism (“The Byrds & Jimi Hendrix in the same song”), to just plain craziness. It’s not a record that gives up its charms immediately, like all twin LPs the 25 songs could stand some editing  but once you get this blend of the weird & the wonderful then the Spirit is going to move you.



In the 1970s an alliance of psychedelic idealism & entrepreneurship established a network in the UK for the manufacture & distribution of high quality L.S.D. At college I had met a couple of too much too soon acid burnouts…a warning. I had tripped without running naked down the street armed with a chainsaw, without jumping out of a 5th storey window, I could still walk through a door & be pretty sure it might not be a portal to another dimension. Our small circle of friends enjoyed pleasant lysergic evenings, in comfortable surroundings with good company. Our music of choice for many of these mind-has-left-your-body experiences was Spirit.


This isn’t jagged edged Acid Rock, I love that 13th Floor Elevators noise but it’s sure to harsh my buzz man. In 18 months Spirit released 3 LPs of imaginative psychedelic music, each one a box of delights. The washes of acoustic guitar, flowing lead breaks & Cassidy’s great percussion were given a clean, clear, even elegant production. “Son of Spirit” & “Farther Along” (a reunion of 5 of the original 6 members) maintained the level of “…76”. Mid-1970s  Spirit had a vibe of their own, a lovely calm logic to the best songs, avoiding the bombast of Rush, Pink Floyd or all those other pretentious peddlers of Prog Rock.



In 1977 Spirit released their final LP of the Mercury years. “Future Games (A Magical Kahauna Dream)” is a polychromatic Spirit world,  a Hawaiian sci-fi phantasmagoria. Gene Roddenberry is not included in the album’s credits despite the inclusion of chunks of Star Trek dialogue. I guess that back then you took your samples where you found them &, if no-one sued, then the price was right. There are so many good tunes on this record, often too short then interrupted by Kirk, Spock or Kermit the Frog ! Randy California’s lyrics can, on first hearing, seem simplistic, a hippie primer. If you put a little work into it you grok that it’s Nature’s Way of telling you in a song. In the late 1970s I knew young punks who carried “Future Games” around with their Pistols, Clash & Ramones records. You meet someone who knows this LP then you will probably get along with them.


Through 1981/82 I got to see the band play 3 times. “Red” Ken Livingstone, the leader of the Greater London Council, was a Spirit fan (I’d probably get on fine with Ken) . He had them over to County Hall for lunch & asked them to play at a free concert for those who wished to avoid the marriage of the Queen’s eldest son to some blonde who got lucky (or did she ?). Spirit’s festival sets could be a little heavy on Randy’s guitar gymnastics. At Glastonbury a bemused cameraman wandering through a cloud of dry ice searching for the source of some great feedback was hilarious. At Hammersmith Odeon, playing to their own audience, a version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was a perfect realisation of respect for & understanding of the rock tradition & of the Spirit dynamic.



There was one more surprise to come out of this second burst of Spirit creativity. “The Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potatoland” had been recorded by Randy & Ed in 1973/74 but it was not released until 1981. “…Potatoland” has tunes, “Open Up Your Eyes”, “Turn to the Right”, “My Friend”, which are up there with the best of Spirit. The album’s concept is a little half-assed but it’s a comic book (one was included in the package) in the stoned tradition of Gilbert Shelton & Cheech & Chong. I don’t need every evening’s listening to shake my world. There are times when good music, a simple story about Potato People & a giant chocolate eclair are just the thing.

Later recordings by Randy California & by the reunited Spirit missed the mark, lacking the assurance & subtlety of their best music. In 1997 Randy was drowned in Hawaii while rescuing his 12 year old son. He was just 45. Today Spirit are regarded because of ” 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus” & their one successful 45 “I Got a Line on You”. The 3 LPs preceding “12 Dreams…” are all fine contributions by the original group to the best West Coast music around. The best of the songs on the records made in the 1970s are a continuation of an individual, original take on Rock & Roll. I don’t really care that Spirit Mark II are neglected. Myself, Martin, who put me back on to the group, & plenty of other people I like share a passion for these records & consider Randy California to be ranked as a guitar hero of his time.


Danny’s Best of 2015 (Those He Can Remember)

It’s that time when a hand-picked band of friends of loosehandlebars are invited to contribute their own musical highlights of the past year. First to the plate is Danny McCahon, a champion of Scottish music & whose support of this blog is much appreciated. Danny’s radio drama  “A Lulu of a Kid”, about the early days of the Glasgow chanter, is to be broadcast on Xmas Day by BBC Radio Scotland. It will also be in your computer on the “listen again” feature so don’t miss it.


It’s all new music if you’ve never heard it before, right? That’s been my attitude this year, anyway, as I learned loads of stuff including that Idlewild don’t play the folkie tunes their name had led me to expect. So, my chosen highlights for 2015 all have a whiff of history about them. No nostalgia, though. Although I love old stuff, I’m not keen on nostalgia.


First up is a band that coulda, shoulda, woulda been Glasgow very own Rolling Stones. I’d never even heard of them until my day job had me trawling through accounts of the Glasgow music scene in the sixties. This name kept cropping up: The Blues Council. People whose opinions I trust all seemed to have good words for them and the Sensational Alex Harvey’s brother, Les Harvey, was in them. I had to investigate. But they made only one single and, now that it’s a floor filler on the Mod scene, I can’t afford a copy.



The group was formed by former ballroom band leader Bill Patrick, with Billy Adamson on drums, Fraser Calder on vocals, James Giffen on bass, Leslie Harvey on lead guitar, John McGinnis on piano with Larry Quinn and Patrick playing saxes. They created a buzz and established a solid and loyal following as house band at The Scene Club in their home town and were quickly snapped up by Parlophone. But after one single ‘Baby Don’t Look Down’/‘What Will I Do’ on the way home from a gig on 12 March 1965, their van was in a crash and Fraser Calder and James Giffen died. There was a short-lived new line up but they never made any more records. I loved their one record when I found it on YouTube. Especially B Side What Will I Do.


It’s easy to get to Edinburgh from my house. Out the front door turn left, first left, fourth on the right and keep going until you run out of M8. But I lost the habit of going to gigs there round about the mid-eighties. Seventy-five miles is a fair distance when it comes to accent and culture. So, I had never heard of The Fabulous Artisans until a few weeks ago when I went to see Glasgow’s finest James King and the Lonewolves (who I hope to tell you more about next year if our editor will allow me the space) headline a revue featuring artists from Stereogram Records (who I’d like to tell you more about next year if our editor will allow me the space).


Anyway, this larger than life man in a dark suit with a voice that swamped even his stature and had such depth it rendered his suit pale, completely took me by surprise. In the best possible way. This was Neil Crossan, the singer in The Fabulous Artisans. Apparently Neil and his writing partner Jeremy Thoms put the band together in 2007 and plucked their name from the Orange Juice catalogue. Despite having bought three albums ion the way in, I tried to buy the Fabs album on the way out. But they don’t have one. Yet.


The only way I can let you hear why I was so impressed – and dropped Roddy Frame off my highlights list – is to guide you towards their downloadable single These Open Arms: http://www.stereogramrecordings.co.uk/audio/the-fabulous-artisans-these-open-arms-download-single/#prettyPhoto/0/


My third pick which – in true talent show fashion, listed in no particular order – is much closer to home. In my home town of Greenock, in fact, and featuring one of our own sons. I liked Pulp when Blur and Oasis were fighting it out for the Britpop lightweight championship of the charts, so I wasn’t really paying attention when my hometown had its own band of cheeky wee upstarts in stripy T shirts and floppy hairdos. But I was  missing a trick, because Whiteout were a better than decent band and their lead guitarist, Eric Lindsay, was a better guitarist than Britpop deserved. I picked up on their debut album years later and, by chance, became friends with Eric.



Eric’s bid for pop stardom had cost him a few quid and he was now bringing up his family on the wages of a modern languages teacher. But, of course, he was still playing. Filling pubs and clubs with shifting lineups of friends and acquaintances. An annual gig between Christmas and New Year became a favourite on the local social calendar. And, as guitarist in Joe (Superstar) McAlinden’s band Linden, he’s been making some fantastic music these past couple of years. But Eric has his own songs that deserve to be heard. And he got serious again in 2015. With singer Lynnie Carson he started gigging again, using his old band name Eli. Eric describes their live set as being full of ‘songs that touch on the great opposing themes of life’. Songs about lost and lasting love, of faith and infidelity, of alienation and universal connectivity.


One of my happiest memories of 2015 is sitting in a local bistro, my belly full of good food and a healthy serving of alcohol, with my wife and some of our very best friends listening to Eric and Lynnie giving Eric’s tunes an airing. Life doesn’t get better than I felt that night. They’re a humble pair and don’t appear much on the internet, but this snippet from an earlier gig will give you a glimpse of why I think Eric deserves to be more than just the best musician on his school’s staff.


It’s all new music if you’ve never heard it before, aye?


Great stuff Danny. He & I exchange thoughts, words & music electronically at the moment. Early in 2016 we should be in the same place at the same time for the Everlasting Y eah gig at the Lexington in London. So…that’s one of next year’s highlights sorted then eh…I said eh !

Mr Pink Makes A Movie (Steve Buscemi:Film Director)

Remember back in the mid-90s when Steve Buscemi was in every movie you saw at the cinema or rented from the video store (ask your parents, it’s what we had to do to see a film). Now he’s more likely to be known for his star turns in 2 landmark TV series. In series 5 of “The Sopranos” Tony Blundetto, a mobster from the old school, drives his cousin Tony Soprano to (spoiler alert) murder. “Boardwalk Empire” chronicled the rise & fall of another New Jersey gangster over 5 series. Buscemi dominated this outstanding show in his role as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson & deservedly picked up all the acting awards going.


Back then, in the 90’s, Steve’s restless performances & his exophthalmic eyes made him noticeable in whatever part he played. He appeared in all the Coen Brothers films, a couple by Tarentino & Tom DiCillo, Robert Altman’s “Kansas City”, John Carpenter’s “Escape to L.A.”. He was, of course, one of Bruce Willis’ gang who saved the Earth in “Armageddon”, the “Marietta Mangler” in “Con Air”. None of us who have seen the delightfully odd “The Search for One-Eye Jimmy” (1994) are going to miss it from this list. I found this film for just £1 ($1.57) & it’s a jewel of my DVD collection. Steve Buscemi obviously liked to work & he was in demand by the top directors of the day. On a very busy schedule he also found the time to direct his first feature film.




If you have not seen “Trees Lounge” (1996) & you have just watched the trailer then you know that you have missed out on something  very fine. The film stars & is written,& directed by Steve Buscemi, who plays Tommy, a man with a broken past who is hoping to find a future at the bottom of a glass. He’s too high to make good decisions, too wasted to care that much. He takes a job driving an ice cream truck around the Long Island ‘burbs, helped out by 17 year old Debbie (Chloe Sevigny) & that’s never going to end well. “Trees Lounge” is a study of drinking culture that hits home, the bar is not “Cheers”. There’s a touch of Bukowski in the story but Tommy arouses compassion & sympathy despite his obvious failings. Now this may be my own projection (I’ve had my own dodgy moments) or the great performance by Buscemi. I’m going with the latter.


Tommy is no loner & “Trees Lounge” no one-man band. The large ensemble cast all make convincing contributions. It’s too long a list to include everyone here. Mimi Rogers, Carol Kane & Seymour Cassel come to mind (as Ms Rogers often does !) but another day it would be another 3. David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos” employed the same casting agency for his series & 4 of the actors, including Michael Imperioli (Christopher Soprano), moved across to New Jersey. I watch a lot of low budget American indie movies & “Trees Lounge” , along with “The Station Agent”, endures as a benchmark for its dark humour, authenticity & humanity. 5 stars (out of 5).



After such a first-rate debut Buscemi’s next film was an adaptation of Edward Bunker’s prison novel “Animal Factory” (2000). Bunker, Mr Blue in “Reservoir Dogs”, had served his time in the joint & his books pull no punches. Among the film’s co-producers with Bunker was Danny Trejo, “Machete”, who the writer had met in Folsom State Prison. Trejo is part of another excellent cast led by Willem Dafoe as a veteran con who takes Edward Furlong under his wing. Remember Furlong, such a nice young man who was flying back then with “American History X” & “Pecker”. In 2002 he lost the part of John Connor in “Terminator 3” &…well, what happened ?


Also in the cast is John Heard, a leading man in the 80’s (“Cutter’s Way”, “After Hours”) who spent too much time having a good time but always gives good value. In the clip the transvestite Jan the Actress is played by Mickey Rourke, whose star was later to rise again in “Sin City” & “The Wrestler”. He had been a fine actor before getting distracted by boxing & plastic surgery. “Animal Factory” is a good film, the assembly of tough guys all doing their thing. It’s more “Midnight Express” than “Shawshank” & that will always get a thumbs up from me.



In the next 5 years Steve Buscemi was great in Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World”, hilariously robbed a bank in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish”, handled return gigs with Jim Jarmusch, Robert Rodriguez & Michael Bay. His return to directing with “Lonesome Jim” (2005) was a very low-budget affair. The film is written by James C Strouse, a specialist in stories about mixed-up, miserable men. When Strouse directs his own scripts he’s a little over-sentimental, though the new one, “People, Places & Things” (2015) with Jemaine off of Flight of the Conchords, is worth a viewing. In Buscemi’s directorial digits “Lonesome Jim” is a charming study of one man’s despondency.


Jim (Casey Affleck) an aspiring, failed novelist, returns to his family home super pissed off, convinced that everything he touches turn to crap. His family, Dad (Seymour Cassel), Mum (the delightfully mad Mary Kay Place), brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan) & Uncle Evil (Mark Boone Jr),  are of little help though that’s another great cast. Into Jim’s life comes Anika, a nurse, an optimistic, straightforward, ray of sunshine. She is played by Liv Tyler…well, what can a poor boy do ? Before this film I thought that young Casey made movies because he knew some people who knew his brother Ben. He certainly delivers as the morose Jim, showing a potential that was delivered on in “The Assassination of Jesse James”, “Gone Baby Gone” & “The Killer Inside Me”. With “Lonesome Jim” Steve Buscemi showed that not only was he a top-notch actor but also an assured director who had been paying attention on all those film sets.


In 2007 there was another feature, “The Interview”, a two-hander with Sienna Miller which I have not seen. He directed 4 episodes of “The Sopranos”, including the unforgettable “Pine Barrens”, Paulie & Christopher taking a clueless walk on the wild side. There have been 6 episodes of Nurse Jackie & a web series “Park Bench with…” which is definitely at the top of my to-see list. Steve Buscemi has a proven track record as a director & I hope that now he is done with Nucky & “Boardwalk Empire” that there will be more of his films to entertain us.

I Sat Up And The Room Was Full Of A Man With A Gun (Donald E Westlake)

Donald E Westlake, a very prolific writer of crime fiction, moved to New York in 1959 & immediately found that he could give up his day job in a literary agency & turn pro. By the end of the following year there were 9 published titles written by Westlake but not under his name. This soft-porn pulp used the pseudonym Alan Marshall, an umbrella apparently for a number of contributing authors. I have not read “Man Hungry”, “All the Girls Are Willing” or even “Passion’s Plaything”, maybe I should check them out…maybe. His fecundity, his range & eagerness to see his work in print meant that he employed many nom-de-plumes in his career. It hasn’t helped his reputation as a top gun in American crime fiction. You could have read one of his books & not known that it was by Westlake.

The first of his books to make an impression had the name Richard Stark on the cover. “The Hunter”, published in 1962, It is the debut of Stark & of the master thief Parker whose life in larceny would be developed over the next 45 years. As was the case with many of the writers of hard-boiled fiction Westlake attracted the attention of European film directors. In 1966 Jean-Luc Godard played fast & loose with “The Jugger” for “Made in the USA” without acquiring the book rights. The next year English filmmaker John Boorman adapted “The Hunter” changing Lee Marvin’s character from Parker to Walker for “Point Blank”. The film, one of the greatest of the 1960’s (OK, my favourite movie, like ever !) mixed the nouvelle vague with film noir. The existentialism & the brutality were Boorman/Marvin’s, the skeleton, the classic revenge thriller was Stark/Westlake’s.

Westlake became established enough to use just the 2 names (with a diversion for the Mitchell Tobin books written a Tucker J Coe). His books are about scores, capers & heists.They are set mostly in New York & the characters more sophisticated than classic 1950′[s pulp. The plots are tight, amusing & involving, the cracking-wise excellent. Parker, the pro, is cynical & suspicious, unsurprised by any twist & turn because everything is just business. In 1970 a Parker novel kept taking a lighter, more comic turn & it became the first book to feature John Dortmunder, another long-running criminal character. “The Hot Rock” was quickly picked up by Hollywood.

In “The Hot Rock” (1972) Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, George Segal his main partner-in-crime. There’s a good supporting cast, Moses Gunn & especially Zero Mostel always add value. English director Peter Yates (“Bullitt”) & master screenwriter William Goldman, fresh off “Butch Cassidy…” & a Westlake fan, were involved too. The movie, titled “How to Steal a Diamond (In 4 Uneasy Lessons)” in the UK, is a quality comedy-caper film shot in Manhattan with a cool Quincy Jones soundtrack. It’s not “Dog Day Afternoon” but then few films are that good.

It wasn’t until 1975 that Westlake slowed a little. There was a novel a year under his own name, some developing the Dortmunder character. In 1986 he couldn’t resist introducing the Sam Holt novels written by Samuel Holt ! In 1997, after a break of 23 years, Parker returned in the aptly named “Comeback”. He seemed no older & no better at life & crime but the world had changed. This time around Parker had a great plan to rip off a tele-evangelist. Man plans, God laughs.

Hollywood kept calling & his novels were regularly adapted. Mel Gibson starred in “Payback”, a remake of “The Hunter” with the Parker name changed again (this time it was Porter). Westlake insisted that the name could only be used if all the novels were optioned. It was only after his death in 2008 that a “Parker” film was made but if you think I am going to watch a Jason Statham movie, even in the interests of research, then think on. None of these films were better than “The Outfit” (1973)  from a 1963 novel with a very similar revenge plotline to “The Hunter”. Written & directed by John Flynn, who went on to make the excellent “Rolling Thunder” (1977), it’s a direct, tense thriller. Robert Duvall  (Macklin) is out of jail & pissed. He wants the money he is owed by the Mob & revenge for his brother’s death & single mindedly pursues the Boss (Robert Ryan) with Joe Don Baker & Karen Black for company. “The Outfit” is a proper film, I met Mr Baker once in London & spoke about “Junior Bonner”, the film he made with Peckinpah. I should have complimented him on this movie too. This great clip highlights Jerry Fielding’s cool score.

It’s tough to recommend particular books by Donald E Westlake, there are over 100. The early ones are now from a world that has changed, they belong with the classic 1950’s hardboiled fiction of David Goodis & Jim Thompson. Westlake wrote the screenplay for “The Grifters” (1990), an ideal choice to update the master. His later books reflect these changes, the effect of 9/11 on New York, Google…”some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business.” In the final Dortmunder novel “Get Real” our anti-hero commits a crime for the convenience of reality TV. In this just as it always was the humour, the satire & the plot development is sharp & hits the mark. The cynicism too, nothing is what it seems. Donald E Westlake’s closest literary contemporary is Elmore Leonard, a writer held, I think, in higher regard. For myself Westlake’s cast of characters, his sophistication & even his dialogue outdoes Leonard & he deserves a place at the top table of American crime fiction.