Carpenters Of Love And Affection (Soul 12th November 1972)

At the beginning of 1972 Cash Box featured a rising young artist on their cover & spelled his name wrong! Al Greene was just 20 in 1967 when his debut single “Back Up Train” was an R&B hit & made the US Pop Top 50. The following 45s & album were not as successful. In 1969 bandleader/saxophonist Willie Mitchell hired Al to sing with his band then took him along to a new thing he had going making records for the Hi label. By the end of 1972, after dropping an “e”, Al Green had the fasting rising record on the Cash Box R&B Top 60 for November 12th 1972, he was the biggest new star on the Soul scene & when he appeared on the cover of Cash Box for the second time this year the magazine used the correct spelling.

The three Hodges brothers, Teenie, guitar, Leroy, bass & Charles, keyboards were central to Willie Mitchell’s plans at Royal Recording Studios in Memphis. Together with this Hi Rhythm Section he created a velvety, seductive sound, smoother than the sharp-edged abandon from across the city at Stax, still warm, soulful & perfect for the label’s new featured vocalist. In his youth Al Green had aimed to emulate Sam Cooke & Jackie Wilson, Mitchell encouraged him to find his own voice, to express himself in his own songs like the super hits “Tired of Being Alone” & “Let’s Stay Together”. You know these songs, I don’t have to tell you about the special appeal of Al Green, the new star of the 1970s to match those of the previous decade.

Commercial success brought great creativity & confidence. There were two albums in 1972, both #1 R&B, Top 10 Pop, & “You Ought To Be With Me”, rising a big 16 places from #29 to #13 on the R&B chart of 50 years ago this week, is the first of three 45s from the upcoming album to make the Top 10. The song, written by Green, Mitchell & Al Jackson Jr, the nonpareil drummer off of Booker T & the M.G.’s, is perhaps not as well remembered as the other two, “Call Me (Come Back Home)” & “Here I Am (Come & Take Me)” but it’s classic Al Green, you hear it & you know who it’s by. Here, on “Soul Train” it’s showcased in it’s full glory, while other guests were happy to lip-synch to their latest record Al brought his band, his song, his voice, his charisma & it’s a stunning joyous performance. As host Don Cornelius says in his introduction, ” there are many stars in the sky, Al Green is the moon & there is only one moon, there is only one Al Green”.

Texan Johnny Nash had made a mark as an actor/singer without consolidating his progress. A starring role in a 1959 movie didn’t lead to the parts that went to Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte while in his career as a Rock era crooner aspirations to emulate Nat “King” Cole & Johnny Mathis were unfulfilled. A 1965 R&B hit encouraged a move to Jamaica where studio costs were more affordable & Johnny entered a creative local music scene. His company signed the four Wailing Wailers to publishing deals & in 1968 his own fluent Rock Steady “Hold Me Tight”was an international hit. With Bob Marley in the US & Bunny Wailer in Richmond Farm prison it was Peter Tosh who had two songs on the LP that followed. Johnny’s subsequent records were more popular in the UK, we liked Reggae over here, & he continued to promote the talent of Bob, taking him to London to perform & record. By the time his version of Marley’s “Stir It Up” was another British hit CBS had taken notice & picked up his contract.

Now with better promotion “I Can See Clearly Now” rose 11 places to #36 on this week’s R&B charts. Recorded in London , backed by the Fabulous Five Inc, with a lyric of perseverance & optimism to a loping Reggae rhythm, the song was on it’s way to #1 R&B & the same position on the Pop charts of the US & the UK. It’s a smash, you know the words.It’s not Burning Spear, there’s no 7″ Disco-Dub version, it’s smooth, uplifting Pop-Reggae & was very, very popular. The accompanying Platinum-selling album included four Bob Marley, soon to be signed by Island, songs. Johnny continued to have UK hits with his sweet Reggae-inflected records, he was certainly an agent in the spread of Jamaican music & a champion of Reggae’s international star.

Listed as a new entry at #59 is “You Got the Magic Touch” by Limmie & Family Cookin’, a song I was not aware of by a group that I was. I went to the usual places, Y-tube, Discogs, Wikipedia, to find out more about Avco release number 4602 & found nothing about touches, plenty about magic. Limmie Snell, from Canton, Ohio, had been recording as Limmie B Good since he was 11 before forming a vocal group with his twin sisters Jimmy & Martha. Their first 45, “You Can Do Magic” (it was that all along) didn’t make any major impression on the US charts but here in the UK in 1972 the popular Northern Soul dance clubs were picking their own favourites & buying enough copies of them to gain the attention of radio stations so this unknown group had a Top 3 hit on this side of the Atlantic with their catchy bit of Pop-Soul. 18 months later they were back in our Top 10 with “A Walking Miracle”. Folk here remember dancing to Limmie & Family Cookin’ but a bigger impression was left by the writer/producer of “You Can Do Magic”.

Sandy Linzer & his writing partner Denny Randell worked with producer Bob Crewe & songs including “Dawn (Go Away)”, “Opus 17 (Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me)” & the almost perfect “Let’s Hang On” contributed to the maintenance of the Four Seasons’ popularity in the face of the Beatles-led British Invasion. In 1966 their own operation found success with the classically inspired “A Lover’s Concerto” for girl group the Toys then, two years later a pattern was started when “Breakin’ Down the Walls of Heartache” by the Bandwagon was recognised as a classic breathless rush of energy & made our Top 10. After Limmie & Family Cookin’ Sandy worked with Odyssey. “Native New Yorker” hit on both sides of the Atlantic while, in 1980, “Use It Up & Wear It Out” spent two weeks at #1 in the UK. Finally, I know, it’s a list & there are others, an old Four Seasons tune was re-made, re-modelled by the Spinners & “Working My Way Back To You” was another chart-topper. Flipping heck, Sandy Linzer knew how a hit tune went.


The Cream Rising To The Top (Soul November 4th 1972)

I’ve not taken a look at the US R&B charts from 50 years ago this week for some time & this time around I need look no further than the Top 3 of the Cash Box R&B Top 60 of November 4th 1972 for my selections. All three were also included in the Top 10 of the US Pop chart for this week – big hits then, you probably know them.

The Spinners, five friends from Ferndale, Michigan, got together in 1954. Almost a decade later the group was taken to Tamla Motown by their label boss Harvey Fuqua where, despite making some fine records, found that there was only space for one five man vocal group on the label & that would be the Temptations. They neither established their individuality nor achieved commercial success & were even working as roadies, chauffeurs & chaperones for other acts before Stevie Wonder handed the group “It’s A Shame”, not only their biggest hit but also one of their final 45s for the label. There were nine different producers employed on the 1970 album “Second Time Around”, their contract was not renewed & they moved on. G.C. Cameron, the lead on “It’s A Shame” chose to stay & his cousin Phillipe Wynne stepped in to join Bobby Smith & Henry Fambrough as one of three lead vocalists. No offence to G.C. but this turned out to be a smart Spinner move.

With the raised profile & goodwill from their 1970 Atlantic were waiting to sign the group. They were matched with producer Thom Bell whose work at Sigma Sound Studio, along with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, was making the Sound of Philadelphia a very big thing. Atlantic, hoping to catch the wave of Bell’s slow heartbreak hits with the Delfonics & the Stylistics, released “How Could I Let You Get Away” as their first single but it was the uptempo b-side that caught the ear & “I’ll Be Around” hit the #1 spot on the R&B chart this week in 1972. The Spinners were as sharp & contemporary as their album, released in 1973, which produced three Gold records, four Top 10 R&B 45s. They they were, as you can see from the live clip, ready for success. With Bobby & Phillipe’s distinctive leads backed by great harmonies, slick dance moves & Thom Bell’s talent as a writer/producer they became one of the most celebrated vocal groups of the decade. .

Bill Withers was in his 30s before he recorded his debut album. There had been 9 years service in the US Navy before settling in Los Angeles, working a day job at Boeing to finance his demo tapes. “Just As I Am” (1971), produced by Booker T Jones (off of the M.G.s), included the single “Ain’t No Sunshine”, a crossover to the Pop chart million seller. Booker T had called on his friends to play on the record & for the follow-up Bill brought in the L.A. musicians who had played on his demos. Ray Jackson (keyboards/arrangements), Benorce Blackmon (guitar), Melvin Dunlap (bass) & drummer James Gadson’ all previously members of Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band, shared a production credit on “Still Bill” (1972) & joined him on the road when Bill started his new full-time musician’s job.

This new unit made “Still Bill” a better record than the debut, adding a very cool in-the-pocket groove to mature, emotionally expressive songs that certainly connected to the record-buying public & earned Bill a place at Soul’s top table. “Lean On Me”, you know it, was a Platinum #1 Pop hit & now the smooth, insistent, resistance is useless, sinuous funk of “Use Me” was #2 on the R&B charts. “Live At Carnegie Hall” (1973) showed an accord between a great band enhancing the sincerity & geniality of a great singer that was life-affirming. A later move to a major record company proved to be less to Bill’s taste. The records are still warm & individual, there were still hits, but a production gloss moved him away from his original sound & the company often rejected tracks while making inappropriate suggestions for material & he stepped away from recording. For the rest of his life Bill Withers remained a grounded, wise, humble & gracious man. He had written songs that endured for the ages. “Ain’t No Sunshine” has been covered more than 350 times, “Lean On Me” & “Just the Two of Us” both more than 100, I’m guessing the regular royalty cheques from these classics helped him along the way.

Curtis Mayfield was just 16 when his group the Impressions had their first hit in 1958. In his hometown Chicago, as part of the talent gathered by Carl Davis at Okeh Records, he integrated his Gospel & Doo Wop roots into commercial Soul with rare songwriting skill. In 1961 the rather perfect “Gypsy Woman” was a big hit for the Impressions. Like many young black men Curtis had a developing awareness of the issues facing his race in the 1960s & this was reflected in lyrics expressing his concerns & aspirations. 1964’s “Keep On Pushing” & the following year’s “People Get Ready” were written as anthems & adopted by the Civil Rights movement. He was also navigating his way around the business of music & in 1968 he started his label Curtom with an album release by the Impressions & a firm eye on his own solo career.

On “Curtis” (1970) he revelled in his new artistic freedom. Songs like “Move On Up”, “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” & “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” were lyrically more profound while the upbeat rhythms, strings & brass of Chicago Soul were stretched by his understanding of the new progressive sounds of Black American music. The record was an artistic breakthrough & a commercial success. “Shaft” (1971) was not the first significant contribution to Black cinema but its box-office success & that of Isaac Hayes’ score really started something, a new wave of “blaxploitation” movies all with their own funky soundtrack. By the end of the decade most major black artists had entered the field but few achieved the standard set by Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly”” (1972) (I’m thinking Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”). Youngblood Priest was no “black private dick”, he was a cocaine dealer looking for one last big score. Curtis’ new gritty realism suited the neo-noir story as did the expanded musical palette & ambition of himself & arranger Johnny Pate. “Freddie’s Dead”,appears in the movie as an instrumental but when released, with lyrics, ahead of the film, it was gold records & Grammy nominations all round.They, the 45 & the album, are landmark records. 50 years ago this week “Freddie’s Dead” stood at #3 on the R&B chart.

Well, that’s some Top 3, a Golden Age of Soul or what? The Spinners, Bill Withers & Curtis Mayfield all made records that abide after half a century. Next time I’ll dig a little deeper, hit the lower reaches of the Top 60 where there are some pretty good records too. I’ll end with a live performance of “Freddie’s Dead”, stripped of the orchestral brass & string atmospherics, driven by the bass of Joseph “Lucky” Scott, the percussion of “Master” Henry Gibson, a man I don’t know on wah-wah guitar & the authentic star power of Curtis Mayfield. “Hey, hey. Love, love. Yeah, yeah”.

Music Of the Mind, Body And Soul (1st June 1972)

1971 had been the year of Isaac Hayes. Having already experienced great success with three albums of orchestral Soul the release of “Shaft”, a landmark of Black cinema took his soundtrack & theme tune to the top of charts all over the world – “can you dig it?”. Later in the year the double-disc “Black Moses” consolidated Isaac’s place on the board of directors of R&B. There was no new collection in 1972 but his non-album singles still attracted attention & 50 years ago this week, at #25 on the Cash Box R&B Top 60, his latest 45 was a tip to the times before “Hot Buttered Soul” (1969) had sold a million copies & launched his solo career.

David Porter worked at a grocery store opposite Satellite Records in Memphis. A budding songwriter he found encouragement there, bringing along friends from high school including Booker T Jones & William Bell. When Satellite became Stax David was the first on-staff writer employed by the company. In 1965 a new partnership with Isaac Hayes brought “I Take What I Want” to Sam & Dave, by the end of the year “You Don’t Know Like I Know” was the first of 11 R&B Top 20 hits for the Double Dynamite duo. On 1969’s “Best of Sam & Dave” 11 of the tracks were Hayes/Porter compositions, all 14 produced by the pair. “Hold On, I’m Coming”, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” & of course “Soul Man”, these were tailor-made hits from David Porter. With the the Stax/Atlantic split Sam & Dave were moved away from Memphis (they never made the R&B Top 30 again), Hayes was in the forefront of the label’s relaunch & it was time for Porter to consider a solo career of his own.

“Gritty, Groovy & Gettin’ It (1970), produced by Isaac, was certainly groovy & got it but David’s lighter voice with less grand arrangements was not gritty enough to emulate the success of his former partner. Now working with keyboard player Ronnie Williams “Into A Real Thing” (1971) opened with an elongated “Hang On Sloopy”, plenty of spoken interludes stretching the song to 11 minutes but Isaac had already done that. “Victim Of The Joke? – An Opera”, also 1971, was more inspired, more imaginative & more like it. A concept album about a love affair, the songs linked by “interludes”, an uptempo cover of Lennon & McCartney’s “Help”, the 10 minute “(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over” a standout in a classy collection which reminds me of Swamp Dogg’s work with Z.Z. Hill. “Ain’t That Loving You Baby (For More Reasons Than One)”, a Homer Banks song, originally recorded by Johnnie Taylor in 1967, which became a Jamaican favourite when Alton Ellis & U Roy took a tilt at it, reunites the ace pair. It’s a classic propulsive Stax tune, Isaac’s deep voice giving some bottom to David’s sweeter tones, the boys in the studio who had replaced Booker T & the M.G.s bringing the sound from the mid-60s into 1972. It’s just a great, joyous noise. David Porter never had the solo success of his old sparring partner but when the accolades, the entries to Halls of Fame came around he was rightly remembered & included for his contribution to the 200 or so songs they wrote together.

In the early 1960s Atlantic Records were finding that their classic R&B sound, so influential through the previous decade, was proving to be less attractive to contemporary audiences. It was the success of Solomon Burke that reinvigorated the label, a bellwether that the road to Soul was the one to follow. Born in Philadelphia Solomon became a pastor of his grandmother’s church at 12 years old. The “Boy Wonder Preacher” mixed sermons & songs on local radio stations & obtained a record deal as a result of winning a Gospel talent contest. Five years later he arrived at Atlantic a seasoned vocalist of great strength, emotion & a range encompassing Gospel, Country, Blues & Jazz, the records given a sophisticated Uptown sheen by producer Bert Berns. A string of R&B hits followed with no great crossover on to the Pop chart (his recording of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” missed the Top 50), still the “Rock & Soul” album (1964), Solomon was now “the King of” that, included seven tracks that made the Top 100 while the following year was his most successful yet. The arrival of younger, more marketable stars like Aretha & Wilson Pickett meant that he was no longer the label’s primary artist. Always strong-minded, with an eye on the business & an expanding family (Solomon eventually had 21 children) he felt that it was time to move on.

After a spell at Bell Records where he was most successful with his cover of Creedence’s “Proud Mary” he moved to MGM, a company whose main business was movies, & they matched Solomon with a Blaxploitation film, the current thing after the success of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” & “Shaft”, that needed a soundtrack. “Cool Breeze”, a remake of John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle”, is not widely remembered but the trailer looks pretty cool (“the dude with the diamonds is deadly!”) & Burke, with orchestration assistance from Gene Page, does an impressive job. A mash-up of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” with a W.C. Fields impression is a little random but the required amount of wah-wah guitar makes for a pretty funky album. The single “Love’s Street & Fool’s Road” is in its last week on the R&B chart at #60, it had been in the Top 20. Solomon never had big hits again, he returned to Gospel & Country, took care of his mortuary & limousine businesses & became more involved with the church. In 2002 he won a Grammy for “Don’t Give Up On Me”, an album where Tom Waits, Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello & others were happy to donate songs & plenty were happy to listen to one of the greats sing them.


In May 1971 Stevie Wonder turned 21 & took advantage of a clause in his contract with Tamla Motown, signed back when he was “Little Stevie”, which allowed him to void said document. Of course greater financial remuneration in the form of increased royalty payments was a concern but Stevie wanted complete creative control over the music he made. Throughout the 1960s we had seen & heard the Boy Wonder growing up. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (1965), “I Was Made To Love Her” (1967) & “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (1970) – his fifth R&B #1, his 10th single to enter the US Pop Top 10 – were among the best records of their years, his other fine 45s are a long list but I must check for “Heaven Help Us All” (1970), an empathic Gospel-infused signpost to his developing awareness & maturity. The “Where I’m Coming From” album (1971) was written & produced by Stevie knowing that the contract deadline would limit any label interference. He was playing with his new toys, the studio, his Hohner clavinet & synth-bass, pursuing his personal ambition, responding to Soul’s new directions. The first 45 from the record, “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” didn’t connect with the public, “If You Really Love Me” put him back in the Pop Top 10.

Stevie was ready to let loose on “Music Of My Mind” (1972), still with Tamla having got what he asked for & aware that he would need assistance to realise his inner visions (geddit?) he approached Malcolm Cecil & Robert Margouleff, synthesizer pioneers, builders/operators of TONTO, the largest multitimbral polyphonic analog (say what?) synth ever. Together they conjured an innovative, modern sound, electronic music had never been so funky or so integrated into contemporary music. In 1970 Stevie had married Syreeta Wright, our boy was in love, “Happier Than The Morning Sun”, & he melodiously wanted to tell her that “I Love Everything About You”. On “Sweet Little Girl” he even sings “your baby loves you more than I love my clavinet”. The dreamy “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)”, cut down from eight minutes to three & a half for the 45 is at #27 on this week’s R&B chart. It was not one of Stevie’s biggest records but, like the album, it still sounds fresh & impressive 50 years on.

Buoyed by this burst of creativity Stevie kept busy in 1972. “Syreeta”, the record he made with his wife is a fine companion piece to “Music Of My Mind”, a tour supporting the Rolling Stones introduced him to a new Rock audience then in October along came “Talking Book”. You know that one, from “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” through “Tuesday Heartbreak” (oh my!) & “Superstition” to “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” it’s one of the most perfect records you’ll ever hear.

Random Sightings July 2021

Right, the football season is finally over. England lost their first final in a major tournament for 55 years to an admittedly deserving Italian team by the width of a goal post in a penalty decider. I enjoyed the ride, being able to watch the games with a small group of family & friends was a pleasure after a year of garden meetings. I now have a few weeks when the pros & cons of the Video Assistant Referee or whether the England manager’s preference for the “double-pivot” would prove to be too defensive (it would) can be put on the back burner so let’s get back to throwing some of the good stuff that has crossed my path recently on to the blog. Is this keyboard still working?

Kevin Ayers | Progressive rock, Psychedelic bands, Music is life

In 1972 Kevin Ayers, a mainstay of the music scene in Canterbury, was, as was his habit, kicking back for a while. As a member of the Wilde Flowers & the Soft Machine he had contributed to the progressive/psychedelic improvisation & innovation that was characteristic of that city’s musical output. His three solo albums had a relaxed, whimsical, rather louche charm while retaining elements of surprise & exploration that made him such an original artist. The only live clips of Kevin from this time on the Y-tube are from “The Old Grey Whistle Test” with his group the Whole World. Now, this black & white clip of a solo performance has appeared & what a treat it is. The clip comes courtesy of an independent TV service produced by the Inner London Education Authority, a grouping responsible for the city’s schools which, like its parent administration the Greater London Council, was considered by Thatcher to be part of “the enemy within” & was subsequently abolished. The song, which Kevin explains “isn’t called anything” is “Hymn”, a track from his 1973 LP “Bananamour” & by heck it’s good.

Kevin Ayers – Rainbow Takeaway Lyrics | Genius Lyrics

Sometime in 1972 I attended a midweek entertainment at my university that promised appearances by not only Kevin Ayers but also Syd Barrett, such an influential pioneer of Psychedelic Pop with Pink Floyd before his drug intake & mental fragility led to his withdrawal from the group. A chance to see two such individual British mavericks was a pretty good deal & we took our places cross-legged in front of the stage (it was 1972!) in anticipation. Syd had recorded two fascinating, honest solo albums in 1970 before his unavailability had encouraged the rumours & enhanced the legend. We had no idea of what Syd looked like now so assumed that as the figure setting up in the dark was not Kevin it probably was Syd. Unfortunately on his return to the stage a roadie was adjusting a microphone. The performer stormed off & was not to be seen again. That’s as close we ever got to see one of the great British psychedelic talents…or maybe not. Kevin Ayers saved the day with an intimate & (that word again) charming solo set of bohemian cabaret filled with songs that weren’t about anything, finishing with his version of Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling In Love Again”. Another good, interesting night out.

Stiller & Meara (@STILLERandMEARA) | Twitter

“The Ed Sullivan Show” was never shown in the UK. We knew it was a big deal in the States, our very own The Beatles appeared on three consecutive Sundays in February 1964, causing the same cultural tremors to which we were becoming accustomed. Pretty soon England was swinging like a pendulum do & we had a whole scene going on over here anyway. Over the past year the archives of the show have been regularly released on to the Y-Tube. The show aired from 1948 to 1971 & some of the earlier variety entertainment is a little moderate. Post Mersey Mania the bookers upped their musical game & while the house orchestra are by no means the Funk Brothers it’s always good to see regular guests the Supremes in their modish Motown glory. Of even more interest to myself is the chance to see a number of outstanding US comedians doing that very funny thing they do. I have records by Bob Newhart, George Carlin & Richard Pryor but have never seen their early stand-up routines. The Sullivan clips are introducing me to others who were at the top of their game but we never got to see.

Who was Jerry Stiller's wife Anne Meara?

I was aware that Ben Stiller’s father Jerry was a funny guy. I’d seen him playing George Costanza’s Dad in “Seinfeld”. He was the guy who put me on to Festivus. What I didn’t know was that in the 1960s he had been part of a successful double act & that his partner was Anne Meara, his wife, Ben’s Mum & a very funny guy too. There were 36 appearances on the Sullivan show & this sketch about computer dating (in 1966, in colour, imagine that) where Jewish Jerry meets Irish Catholic Anne, from the same neighbourhood but living separate lives, is short, sharp & eventually sweet. The cracks are wise, the affiliation obvious & attractive. In 1970, concerned about blurred lines between the act & her marriage, Anne stepped away to raise her kids. She later returned to films, TV & theatre including a run with Jerry in “The King of Queens”. Jerry & Anne were married, until her death in 2015, for 61 years, now that’s sweet too.

Harlem Cultural Festival - Wikipedia

Any regular visitor to this part of the Interweb will be aware that I am a little obsessed with that golden decade of Soul from 1965-75 so “Summer of Soul” has been, along with the upcoming Sopranos prequel, the most anticipated film of the year & it did not disappoint. The Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts in New York, was held across six weekends in the Summer of 1969. The events were filmed but despite the success of the “Woodstock” movie & the emerging “blaxploitation” genre there was no financial backing for any commercial release of the footage. Amhir “Questlove” Thompson, a man of multi-talents including playing drums for the Roots, making his directorial debut, has a very solid, impressive musical foundation on which to base his film. It starts with the Psychedelic Soul boys the Chambers Brothers rocking out with “Uptown” & Fifth Dimension, as Billy & Marilyn acknowledge, finding that playing to such a large black audience unwrapped a funky side that was rarely seen on their TV appearances, then the musical highlights keep on coming.

It’s difficult to top the emotional impact of a duet between Mavis Staples & Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord Take My Hand”, a favourite of Martin Luther King & performed in his honour then along come Sly & the Family Stone, racially & gender diverse, boundless, infectious energy & one of the greatest groups ever. Stevie Wonder stakes his claim to being the funkiest individual in the world & the only word to describe Nina Simone is Goddess. All this music is carefully & expertly placed into the context of an assertiveness about the Black experience in the USA. There’s activism & anger about the Vietnam War, about police brutality & social inequality. There’s pride too in their community. The Harlemites who attended the concerts & those who are still around to tell about it want their stories to be heard & listened to. The unanimous dismissal in contemporary interviews of the Moon landing, a big deal for White America, is, as they would say in 1969, “Right On!”.

A Patient By The Name Of (Gregory Isaacs)

On Sunday 13th of May 1984 I was returning home after a weekend out there on the perimeter of South London which had started at Friday tea-time. I had to change buses in Brixton so hopped into the warren of the Stockwell Park Estate for a pit stop at my friend Mary’s. See the kids, quiet cup of tea & a smoke before catching a #35 back to Camberwell. Well, that didn’t happen, the small flat was noisy, full of Mary & around 9 of her friends, some I knew, others I wouldn’t mind knowing, all dressed up & priming themselves to attend a Gregory Isaacs concert across the road at the Brixton Academy. There was one no-show so a ticket was going spare & I was invited along. I had been at it for 48 hours, had work in the morning & was looking forward to my bed. Anyhow this posse of smart, sharp black women were enjoying ragging on a slightly frazzled white man just a little too much. It was time to call a halt to their fun so I left them at the venue & went home. Lightweight!

GREGORY ISAACS © Beth Lesser | Jamaican music, Jamaican culture, Reggae  style

If I didn’t already know it the 1987 release of that concert as “Encore” confirmed that I missed quite an occasion. Gregory “The Cool Ruler” was an international Reggae superstar by this time. Romantic Reggae had always been a thing alongside the conscious Roots Rastafarian music & his classic, clear, polished “Night Nurse” album (1982) set a new standard for the Lovers Rock that was now carrying the swing in Jamaican music. Gregory, recording since he was a teenager, had released a string of albums since 1975, more than a few of them essential. After a 6-month stretch for the possession of unlicensed firearms with his swag, style & his studio/touring band, the Roots Radics, he was ready to show the world how it was done.

And there it is. “If I Don’t Have You” from “More Gregory” (1981), like “Loving Pauper” (“Extra Classic” 1976), & “Lonely Girl (“Soon Forward” 1979) is one of the finest examples of his “lonely lover” style, the smooth, languid vocals heartfelt & believable, gorgeous & glorious. Gregory was always independent. He, like many singers on the island, hired himself out to other producers primarily to finance his own African Museum record shop & label, on Queen St, in front of the Tivoli Gardens, you know it. Here, along with the best Jamaican musicians, he had total control over the recording of his prolific catalogue of songs. His talent as a writer/arranger/producer compliments his position as one of the great Reggae singers. The “Extra Classic” album, a collection of his work for himself & others between 1973-1976, is exactly what it says in the title.

It wasn’t all finding & losing Love. Of course as a young Jamaican man Gregory couldn’t fail to be influenced by Rastafarianism & to be affected by the violent political turmoil of the decade. “Dread Locks Love Affair” skilfully brought romance into this social realm & his cultural songs, reflections on Kingston street life, bring an effective contrast & texture to his records. Here’s one now.

Gregory Isaacs in front of African Museum Record Shop - photo Beth Lesser

“Black A Kill Black”, still sweet but with the militancy & social conscience that marked Jamaican music of the time. A personal shout too for “Thief A Man” (just a part of Babylon’s plan”), a track from “Gregory Isaacs Meets Ronnie Davis” (1979) where the two singers, under Ossie Hibbert’s production, sounded as clean as country water over rhythms that were so bright you gotta wear shades. It’s one of the great Reggae albums. I do have a penchant for a “version” of a favourite tune & Gregory’s melodic song construction, a natural mid-tempo flow, lends itself to some unhurried rhythmic exploration. Over at King Tubby’s studio in 1978 with Prince Jammy at the controls Gregory’s voice was largely absent from “Slum (In Dub)” & his songs are the foundation of a lovely, relaxed Dub album.

Throughout the 1980s Gregory Isaacs consolidated his legendary status in Reggae music though an addiction to crack cocaine became expensive & debilitating. He was always prolific until his death in 2010, the Discogs website lists 127 albums while the Wiki checks for over 500 including compilations & records re-released under a different title. A couple of his later ones were nominated for Grammy awards but there is no doubt that his drug use had affected his previously peerless voice & the quality of his output. If you have no Gregory in your collection (that’s not possible is it?) it’s probably best to start with something recorded before 1990.

Gregory Isaacs, 1970 | Peter Simon

In 1980 my friend Dave had a flat above a pub in Soho’s Old Compton Street, right at the heart of London’s glittering West End. Newly arrived in the nation’s capital our reckless, alcohol-fuelled adventures around a part of the city that never slept, still edgy, even a little dangerous, were exciting. Back at the pad we could get mellow, move the speakers to the open windows & enjoy the nightlife below while blasting “Soon Forward” down to them. It’s a tune that always brings back memories of good times, a couple of rebels without a clue, young, free & stupid. “Soon Forward” is more than that, it’s one of the greatest records, Reggae or otherwise, Gregory Isaacs’ songwriting skills, unique vocal talent & consummate production combining to nourish the head, the heart & to stir the hips. He was Cool & he Ruled.

Back In The Cheap Seats (January 2020)

I was surprised that “Jojo Rabbit” made it to our local multiplex, in the school holidays too. OK there was just the one showing a day but movies that are right at the top of my “must see” list often necessitate a minimum 50 mile round trip to a larger cinema with a less narrow view of their audience’s taste. I’m not complaining, there’s some very nice countryside around here & we always take the bucolic way home. Not a fan of the word “multiplex”, I’m aware it’s nostalgic but I preferred the time when every town had a neglected old cinema which could accurately be referred to as a “fleapit”.


Related imageWriter/Director Taika Waititi’s successful run has been going on for quite some time now. “Eagle vs Shark” (2007) & “Boy” (2010) caught our attention through his connection with Flight of the Conchords who were not only the funniest thing in New Zealand but also the funniest thing anywhere. “What We Did in the Shadows” (2014) is a brilliant, original documentary on everyday life as a vampire & “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016), an effortlessly charming & funny coming-of-age adventure. Taika got the gig for “Thor: Ragnorok” (2017), huge budget, even bigger box office. I don’t usually do superhero movies but his name on the credits (& my companion’s enthusiasm for that Hemsworth fellow) got me to the cinema. I’m no authority on Marvel Cinematic Universe lore but he didn’t screw up & they are letting him write as well as direct the Viking god & Mjolnir’s next saga.



Related imageSo “Jojo Rabbit” is a break between the blockbusters, a return to the indie aesthetic only this time Hollywood is putting up bigger bucks. Set in the closing months of World War II, 11 year-old Jojo, helped by his Fuhrer friend Adolf, wants to be the best Nazi around. Events, particularly those at home, test his commitment to Fascism & you will have to ask someone else who has seen the film for the rest of the plot. The humour is broad, exuberant & irreverent, as close to Mel Brooks as I’ve seen since the Master himself. Roman Griffin Davies is adorable as the enthusiastic boy, Scarlett Johansson is his mum,  Thomasin McKenzie continues the good work she started in “Leave No Trace” & Sam Rockwell does his thing that adds value to every film he appears in. At the heart of Taika Waititi’s satire is a warmth & a humanity that is touching & appealing. It’s a good time to be pointing out how wrong-headed Fascism is & ridicule is an appropriate weapon. I loved the movie. Watch the clip & you will laugh out loud, hear the Beatles sing in German & be intrigued enough to want to see “Jojo Rabbit” for yourself.


It was a pleasant to note that in the following week the local picture house had upgraded the film to three performances a day. “Jojo Rabbit” deserves better than straight-to-streaming &  while comedies never win the big awards, this week’s nomination for a Best Picture Oscar will surely bring wider exposure. Next up for Waikiti, before “Thor: Love & Thunder”, there’s an adaptation of “Next Goal Wins” the inspirational documentary about American Samoa’s football team. His update, for something called Apple TV, of Terry Gilliam’s enduring classic “Time Bandits” sounds like a perfect match. I’ll be in the queue for all of them.



I’m not too familiar with the current standing of director Rian Johnson. When George Lucas made “Star Wars” in 1977 I was 24, a grown-up who was not really interested in seeing a children’s film. I know just enough about the series to get the references in “Spaceballs” but y’know, I’m not that bothered. A younger associate tells me that Johnson’s efforts on “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” (2017) disappointed & enraged millions of fans & that an announced trilogy of spin-off films now seems unlikely to make the screen. Johnson’s films are smart, stylish & entertaining. His debut “Brick” (2005) transposed a Dashiell Hammett Noir to a Southern California high school. “The Brothers Blooom” (2008), a story of international con artists, is a little busy but the mark is Rachel Weisz so you’ll happily stick with it. The time travelling “Looper” (2012) is Hollywood sci-fi, not too high concept, plenty of action, Bruce Willis & very accomplished it is too.


Image result for kni8ves outAgatha Christie pretty much perfected the “whodunnit” & while “Knives Out” is an update on the genre there are rules & traditions which Johnson respects & adheres to.  The bereaved family, all with motive enough for murder, are observed by an idiosyncratic detective who we know will finally gather them together & ingeniously expose the guilty party on the final page. The film has the director’s characteristic snappy dialogue & visual flamboyance  & he assuredly keeps the clues & red herrings in the air at the same time. The fine, starry ensemble cast brings to mind those Poirot movies on the Orient Express & the Nile. It’s good to see Ana de Armas being more than just a wife (“War Dogs”) or holographic girlfriend (“Blade Runner 2049”). Daniel Craig’s detective, Benoit Blanc, favours Columbo more than Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple or, my favourite, Alistair Sims’ Inspector Poole. “Knives Out” is a very capable, modern entertainment. I’m not sure that Blanc is a strong or interesting enough character to sustain a projected sequel though I am sure that Craig doesn’t need a TV series just yet.




Image result for uncut gems safdie brothersFinally a film starring Adam Sandler a comedian whose continued popularity is beyond me. It’s over 20 years now since “The Wedding Singer” & “The Waterboy” established him as America’s funny guy. There have been parts that have stretched him a little further but there has been plenty of dross like “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” & “Jack & Jill”, it’s a list, a long one. His role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” is cited so often as an example of Sandler’s acting talent that it has become a cliche. Can I refer you to “The Cobbler” (2014) one of those great small-scale movies directed by Tom McCarthy before “Spotlight” made the big time & a Best Picture Oscar. Now, at 53 years old, his performance in “Uncut Gems” is one he will be remembered for.


Image result for uncut gems posterHoward Ratner’s (Sandler) life can’t always have been chaotic. He has a family, a mistress, a jewellery business in Manhattan’s Diamond District, a gambling addiction & things are getting complicated. There’s an Ethiopian opal that he can sell for the kind of money to make his problems go away but this is a Safdie Brothers’ film so things are not that easy. Josh & Benny Safdie make uncompromising, grimy, anxious movies. “Heaven Knows What” (2014) is a love story between two homeless street junkies, “Good Time” (2017), starring the excellent Robert Pattinson, concerns two inept criminal brothers, like “Uncut Gems” neither are the easiest, most relaxing viewing bringing to mind Abel Ferrara’s classic “Bad Lieutenant”. The frantic, exhausting pace is reinforced by fine editing & an outstanding soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never. Former NBA MVP Kevin Garnett & Eric Bogosian (now there was a comedian) are among the support but, never off-screen this is Adam Sandler’s show & he steals it.

Is Rock And Roll The New Bowls? (Danny McCahon 2019)

It’s always a great pleasure to receive the end-of-year reflections of Danny McCahon. This year he provided the words to enhance the sights & sounds of a comprehensive curation of the vibrant 1970’s & 80’s music emerging from his locale, Inverclyde, Scotland. Danny was a face on the scene back then & he still gets himself out of the house to check on the good stuff that’s around today.  


“I hope I die before I get old,” sang Roger Daltrey about his generation, and it seems my generation has found the cure for getting old – get the band back together.

I spent the vast majority of 2019 as a 60 year old. Back in 1965 when Pete Townsend penned that anthemic line for The Who that would have been considered well and truly over the hill – by the raucous mods causing mayhem in the towns and cities of the UK, anyway. A time for white flannels, blue blazers and a cream tea after a sedate game down the bowling club.

My generation of Punk Rockas who followed in the path of rebellion hewn by Pete, Roger and their mates doesn’t seem to be ready for the Werther’s Originals just yet.

In the early months of this year, for a reason I have yet to discover, my home town got all reflective about the local music scene of the seventies and eighties with the upshot being that one of the most successful outfits conceived in the area got back together to play their first gig since the early eighties.



Image result for the cuban heels glasgowThe Cuban Heels were formed in Greenock in 1977 by school mates Davie Duncan and Laurie Cuffe with John Milarky who had wriggled out of Johnny and the Self Abusers before they morphed into Simple Minds. Signed to Virgin after a line up shuffle, they released a series of critically acclaimed singles and one album then disappeared. When they resurfaced for this year’s show it was obvious the fans hadn’t forgotten them and the four-piece featuring founder members Cuffe and Milarky stormed through an energetic, high-paced set to a full house. There was none of that “here’s one off our new album” nonsense in this set. No, it was all the hits and the fans’ favourites including 1981 single, Walk on Water.



When it comes to “The Sound of Middle Aged Scotland” 2019 newcomers Fat Cops have to appear on the list. Featuring Glasgow’s most popular moptop Robert Hodgens, known to the wider world as Bobby Bluebell, the band is full of people my mum might say are ‘old enough to better’ including on keyboard, J.K. Rowling’s other half & comedian Al Murray, “The Pub Landlord”, stepping out from behind the bar to sit behind the drums.

Image result for fat cops bandA couple of packed-out introductory live gigs in Glasgow were followed by appearances around Scotland and the audiences got it. ‘It’ in this instance being fun. The band could be accused of showing off its record collection in its set of originals, but what a record collection. And by the time they crank out the opening bars to their debut single, “Hands Up! Get Down!” everybody is ready to do just that.


Back in 77 when The Cuban Heels were talking about putting a band together, there was already a three-piece striding out in Cuban heels around the country. The Jolt, with their sharp suits and punky sound, were often referred to as Scotland’s answer to The Jam – they even ended up signed to Polydor – but by the time the second generation of mods mounted their scooters in 1979 all the members of The Jolt had moved off in different directions.

Around the same time, like in the rest of the country, young punks would gather in the record shops of central Glasgow. Graffiti and Bruce’s were my favourites, but others used Listen – a well-established local chain where I had bought the first Ramones album and Anarchy in the UK before I knew punk was a thing. One of the staff at Listen went by the name of Mickey Rooney and while we were all Clash mad, to my eyes Mickey always had a Velvet Underground thing going on. A few years later, after I’d gone and done some other stuff, Mickey came on to my radar again with his band The Primevals, Glasgow’s own garage punks.



Image result for the elevator mood jim doakYes, there is a point to this reminiscing. This year Jim Doak from The Jolt and Mickey from The Primevals released a disc of bedroom doodlings under the banner of The Elevator Mood and it has been a highlight of my car listening in the closing months of the year. Veering close to jazz at times and evoking pictures of Brian Eno’s laboratory at others, with psychedelic vibes rubbing grooves with punk rhythms, this is a DIY rock record made by two pals who’ve spent their lives listening to everything and anything, absorbing the good bits and sharing their influences.

There are many highlights on the 13-track disc and “Flower (for Matthew Bloomer)” is one that gets my toes tapping every time.

“How Are You?” “Old” (Almodovar And More)

Are there more films around concerning the passing of the years & reflections on childhood or is it just that now I’ve reached a certain age I’m paying more attention to them? In 2016 “The Distinguished Citizen” (“El Cuidadano Ilustre”) entertainingly told the story of a Nobel Literature Laureate (Oscar Martinez from the brilliant “Wild Tales”), wealthy & now unmotivated to write, accepting an invitation to return from Spain to his hometown in Argentina where his memories & the often resentful characters from his novels await. Last year Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” lovingly & painstakingly captured his own upbringing in 1970’s Mexico City & was deservedly awarded the Oscars for Cinematography, Direction & Best Foreign Language Film (though my vote went to “Shoplifters” from Japan). While I’m interested when others share their cogitations there’s ample contemplative retrospection in my real life thank you. It’s OK because this week I saw “Pain & Glory” (“Dolor Y Gloria”), the new film from Pedro Almodovar & I’ll bet my pension that it will be some time before I need to watch another movie about love, loss & Life.



In the photo a Caucasian male and a Hispanic female can be seen.

Pedro y Penelope

Pedro Almodovar, a master of cinema, is 70 this month & has been directing films for almost 40 years. Since his international breakthrough in 1988 with “Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown” his sophisticated, subversive, sometimes melodramatic or outrageous observations on modern Spain (it’s a list…a long one) has established him as the legatee of their genius Luis Bunuel & worthy of a placing alongside the great directors of cinematic history. “Pain & Glory” is the most autobiographical of his films, thematically & stylistically Almodovariano, casting two of his greatest stars while delivering a singular personal statement with integrity & honesty.


Image result for pain & glorySalvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, grizzled, handsome, sensational) is a film maker who no longer makes films, preoccupied with psychological & physical ailments. A revival of one of his movies reconnects him to the estranged star & to heroin, a drug he had some experience of. His opiate induced absorptions return him to childhood living in a cave with his mother (Played by Penelope Cruz with the sensuality of Sophia Loren) & a love for cinema smelling of “piss, jasmine & a summer breeze”. There’s a reunion with a former lover, Salvo’s first feelings of homosexuality & meetings with his dying mother (Julieta Serrano cast as Banderas’ mother for the third time). All of it is at a perfect emotional pitch &, employing a palette of red & white, looks absolutely gorgeous. The soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias is similarly evocative. Almodovar’s films are not always as fully realised though different folks see different strokes of inspiration in each of them. “Pain & Glory”, with its closing reminder that we have been watching a film, is a masterpiece from a director in absolute control of his undoubted talents.


Image result for pain and glory penelope cruz



Image result for once upon a time in hollywoodIt was an early start on Sunday lunchtime for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. It would have been earlier but the multiplex staff forgot about us though the delay meant that we were spared the interminable commercials/trailers time waste & went straight to Los Angeles in 1969. Well, into Quentin Tarantino’s version of La-La land. QT’s movies, steeped in popular culture references, all have an element of anamnesis. The movie homages (steals?), artfully placed posters, the kitschy-cool Pop soundtracks all reflect his life-long preoccupations. This time around Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a star on the wane, is constantly reminded of his successful past. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) his former stunt double now a gofer is similarly reduced, living in a trailer adjacent to a drive-in cinema. They can’t buy a break in the New Hollywood. Rick’s boozing & Cliff beating up Bruce Lee when he does get a job doesn’t help. Meanwhile Rick’s next door neighbours, Roman Polanski & Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) are living the life.


Image result for margot robbie once upon a time in hollywood


“…in Hollywood” is packed with references to movies & TV shows, real & imagined. The director has some fun morphing Rick into “The Great Escape”. There are some fine scenes, Rick does proper acting, Sharon goes to see one of her movies, Cliff’s visit to the Spahn movie ranch with those damned Manson Family hippies. Then there’s Tarantino’s whipcrack dialogue, it’s a long film but listening to his characters shoot the breeze is always a reason to hand over the entrance fee. A fair chunk of the Internet & the commentariat likes to snark at such a visible, sometimes controversial director. There’s a new Charlie’s Angels film coming up, you’ll be OK. The ending has raised some kerfuffle, violence in a Tarantino movie…who knew? The clue is in the “Once Upon a Time…”, it’s a reverie, only a movie. Jeez, in one of his films he killed Hitler, that didn’t really happen either.


My companion & I had seen every Tarantino film & on the way home we talked about wanting to return to them (me, “Jackie Brown”, him, “Reservoir Dogs”). Damn, if “Kill Me Now Ringo, Said The Gringo”, a Spaghetti Western Rick made in Italy, exists then we would pay to see that too. We’re already on the lookout for  the flame thrower-heavy “The 14 Fists of McCluskey”. “Anyone order fried sauerkraut?”



Related imageBong Joon Ho returns to South Korea for “Parasite”. He went to Hollywood to make the sci-fi classic “Snowpiercer” (2013), on to Netflix for “Okja” (2017), a capable satire about corporations starring a very big pig. “Parasite” concerns a poor family of four struggling to get along in the gig economy, living in a shabby basement. The son, Ki-woo, catches a break & after a little fakery gets work with a very wealthy one-percenter family. A plan is hatched to change their luck & the rest is their story. South Korea’s first winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes is an intricate film, a biting social commentary on the class divide, an amoral, absurd black comedy, a drama which becomes a tense thriller. Each tonal shift is wonderfully & entertainingly handled by the director, the dispassionate camera lens allowing you to make up your own mind about the protagonists. A nod to Hye-jin Jang as the cynical, profane mother, my favourite character. Things I learnt from “Parasite”, the rich don’t like the smell of the poor & the best plan is no plan, then nothing can go wrong.


It’s evidently been an outstanding week’s viewing round here. I’ve already handed out the ultimate “masterpiece” tag to Almodovar’s film so I’m reluctant to pin the same accolade on “Parasite”. I’ll probably regret that after another six months of the usual Hollywood dreck but for sure this is another Hit From the Bong (thank you!). Catch it if you can.

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.



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.