Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Re-issue this! Frank Sinatra: Watertown (1970)

One time when I was working at HMV Oxford Circus some dude from Ace Records came in and pop-quizzed the staff about what out-of-print albums we would like to see re-issued. For what it's worth, I said 'Two Headed Freap', an OK-ish 70s jazz-funk album by Ronnie Foster I musta dug at the time but now seems like an utterly senseless choice. If that dude from Ace Records pop-quizzed me now, there's only one album I could possibly choose: Frank Sinatra's 'Watertown'.

I've been re-visiting 'Watertown' recently. About a year ago I wrote a a very long piece about this album for Mof Gimmer's Electric Roulette, a site which at it's best has more interesting and original things to say about pop music than most. For those who haven't got half an hour to read that article, 'Watertown' was a 1970 soft-rock / easy listening concept album, produced in the contemporary Carpenters / Glen Campbell style. The story, performed with almost method-actorly empathy by Frank Sinatra, traces the heartbreaking story of a small-town father struggling to cope with the breakdown of his marriage. 'Watertown' is not just my favourite Sinatra LP - and that's a tough call, dude-, but one of my Top Ten All Time LPs, period.

Lyrically, 'Watertown' is delightfully detailed, painting a rich portrait of life in the town and the man's life there, out-stripping almost any 'rock musical'-type concept LP of the era in terms of narrative structure and sheer quality of writing. Musically, it is as 'rock' as Sinatra ever got, with a palette of sounds including fuzz bass, RnB-lite drums, flute, electric guitar, vibraphone, scene-setting sound effects and ghostly children's choirs. The late 60s / early 70s pop music scene is littered with attempts by record companies to psychedelicise an established artist's sound in order to cash-in on the hippie dollar, sometimes with valuable musical returns, more often without - but this is not 'Electric Frank'. 'Watertown' is a serious, considered, heartfelt work, by an artist fully enagaged with the project.

I'm given to whims and obsessions, and those cultural artefacts which become totemic for me have done something special to stick around. 'Watertown' hasn't unlodged itself from my mental firmament since it crash landed there a year ago, and I don't expect it to shift any time soon. I credit the album with curing me of vertigo, which I was inexplicably struck down with last September. This post is simply another excuse to heartily recommend an album which doesn't get 10% of the recognition it should. 'Watertown' sold poorly at the time (despite Sinatra himself being very proud of the album), and remains a real cult concern. Logic dictates that one day somebody is gonna do a huge 'Watertown: Special Edition' double-disc re-issue, a la Dennis Wilson's 'Pacific Ocean Blue', and despite myself I'm probably gonna feel a little conflicted about it reaching a wider audience. At the moment I sorta feel like it's mine, and that's cool, but ultimately I guess I would really like to see it get the props it deserves. Once you visit 'Watertown', you never really leave. If you get a chance to hear this remarkable album, I guarantee you'll never want to.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Moon - 'Clangers-esque'

Caught Moon at the cinema the other night. You can find a buncha reviews elsewhere if you really wanna read up on it. I just thought it was an exceptionally cool film, with a hugely impressive one-man-show performance by Sam Rockwell, and enjoyed the spectacular moon-buggy / lunar landscape 'exterior shots' 'cos they look sorta Clangers-esque, which comes as something of a relief after having billions of dollars worth of CGI rammed down your throat by the likes of Transformers et al. Moon is about ideas, not explosions, and there are moments that I can see becoming cultishly iconic - if 'Spaced' was still being made, you can bet your ass there woulda been a Moon pastiche in the next series.

I've seen a few reviews that have criticised how heavily Moon leans on that 70s cycle of working-stiff-in-space movies; Silent Runnings, Soylent Green, Dark Star etc. I guess this is a preference, but I'm not sure whether 'derivative' is a valid criticism in itself. 'Bad copy of' is a fair criticism, but 'copy of' maybe isn't. Moon wears its influences (most obviously 2001) on it's sleeve, deliberately references them in parts, and makes a convincing stab at placing itself as a worthy successor to those movies. So I don't really see what the problem is - it's not like multiplexes are over-flowing with quiet, thoughtful sci-fi, and I'm just glad somebody has had the good taste to rip off some cool old films rather than a current Cartoon Network franchise.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

And that's the way it was: Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Few words have been as undermined and devalued by the relentless, hyperbolic, exaggerated mis-use of language which characterises so much rolling news as the word 'legend'. Walter Cronkite was a newsman known for his precise, honest and measured use of the English language. And few media figures deserve the correctly applied epitaph 'legend' as he.

Anchorman for the CBS Nightly News between 1962 and 1981, Cronkite's voice was the authoritative, humanitarian voice of every major news story in America during some of the nation's most troubled and uncertain times. He is admired not only for having been a reassuring voice, but for being an honest voice, a straight-shooter, from the Ed Murrow-era old school of TV news - he was known simply as 'the most honest man in America'. When he felt the American people deserved to know that he no longer considered Vietnam to be winnable war, he told them so, and President Johnson famously responded that 'if I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America'. Johnson did not seek re-election for a second term.

Having watched Network recently and noted how the movie must surely endure as a constant touchstone for Jon Stewart and the Daily Show team, obituary assessments of Cronkite's reputation confirm once again how powerful the image of 'the honest anchorman' remains in US mainstream media - largely because there appears to be so few of them left. American TV News now wallows in a weird dichotomy - shockingly blatant partisanship in endemic, while a lack of plainly spoken, honest journalism is cowardly explained away as the consequence of fearing repercussions from the regulators for exhibiting 'bias' if 'the truth' can be biased.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams confirmed during a (hugely entertaining) interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week that he knew Cronkite was unhappy with slipping journalistic standards on TV, and that he thought 24 hour news had created a situation where being first was more important than being right. The reality is that the 24 hour news cycle is here to stay, and consequently Cronkite's passing is particularly sad because in 2009 we need honest TV newsmen like Cronkite, newsmen who value basic integrity and independence of the press over 'access' at any cost, more than ever. One hopes that he was not the last of his kind.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Empire Strikes Back: The Adventures Of Luke Skywalker (LP)

It's become such a cliche to say that 'Empire' is your favourite Star Wars movie that you almost feel obliged to express a preference for 'The Phantom Menace' just to break with orthodoxy...but goddammit, even I'm not that perverse. In all honesty it's a close call for me between 'Empire' and 'A New Hope', but that moment when the AT-ATs first lumber into view over the horizen of Hoth (seen initially through the grainy, shaky viewfinder of the rebel recon guy's electro-binoculars, just one robo-elephantine foot filling the whole screen, until the image zooms-out to take in the terrifying size of the thing...only to reveal there's actually three of the bastards!) and the subsequent arctic wasteland battle just about tips it in Empire's favour. And that's before we get to Boba Fett.

Anyways, I picked this LP up from a record stall on York market this weekend. I just liked the cover art, am a sucker for pretty much anything Star Wars related, and thought it'd be sweet to spin when I DJ. It's actually better than I hoped, 'cos in addition to John William's score it features full narration by some cat called Malachi Throne (including the introductory crawl - "It was a dark time for the rebellion...") and lots of dialogue from the movie. All-in-all, perfect DJ-nerd type stuff, I picked it up for a fiver and you can probably do the same if you hunt around. May the crate-digging force be with you.


In Other Star Wars Record Collecting News, I've finally (after years of searching) landed myself a copy of 'Battle Of The Planets' by Fader Gladiator, which many folks will recognise as 'That Cool Hip-Hoppy Star Wars Instrumental From 'Spaced''. I found this video featuring the track on something called 'Youtube'.

The Plastiscines

Coming hot on the heels of Vivian Girls and Poppy & The Jezabels, The Plastiscines are the latest group to be inducted into my arbitrary and pointless cycle of Quite Liking And Supporting In Theory, But Not Investing Financially In, A Bunch Of Girls Who Make Potentially Very Commercial, But In All Likelihood Doomed To Second Division Status, Indie Pop Music. They're four boho-ish young women from France, and were part of that whole Parisian Libertines-scene from a couple of years back. Their first album was a raggle-taggle collection retro-ish guitar pop in the post-Libs syle, and had some nice moments. Their new song, Barcelona, is like three parts Girls Aloud to one part Go-Gos to two parts Blondie, and actually as good as that sounds. Apparently this is the lead single from a new LP which has been recorded in LA by some dude who has worked with Katy Perry, Pink & Avril Lavinge, which explains why it sounds so magnificantly POP. So thankyou for your all your embarrassingly desperate efforts Mr & Mrs Ting-Tings, but your time is up. The Plasticines will take it from here.

The Plastiscines myspace

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Ennio Morricone -'The Ecstacy Of Gold'

I watched 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly' a couple of weeks back. I've sorta half-watched it before a buncha times, but it's a long-ass movie and I've got a short attention span. This time I watched it for real, beginning-to-end, maximum attention, totally focused. I'm a sucker for quick-fix pop trash of all kinds, probably to an indulgent, unhealthy degree, I mean I can still shed a tear when I hear 'Rush Hour' by Jane Weidlin, so it's nice to be reminded now and again that I still have the ability to be emotionally and intellectually shaken by something which is just classically great...ART, something that demands of you some genuine investment of time and mental concentration, and was itself built as a labour of love and grand design. The pay-off for sticking with a movie of 'TGTB&TG's calibre is huge. The emotional weight just builds and builds. I just got a ton out of it.

It goes without saying that Ennio Morricone's score is worth the price of admission alone. I often spin the title theme when DJing. But maybe even greater than the title theme is 'Ecstasy of Gold', from the movie's climax. It's a total knock-out. In the course of Googling 'Ecstasy of Gold' I discovered that Metallica have covered it. I checked out their version on youtube, and good luck to them, but it really sucks. Jay-Z's 'The Blueprint 2' samples it pretty effectively I guess...but nothing can compare to the sweeping majesty of the original. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Hollywoodland: The Legend Of Albert Kothe

So dig this. The Hollywood Sign, set in the rugged scrub land hills of Mount Lee in Los Angeles CA, was originally erected by real estate developers Woodruff & Shoults to advertise their Hollywoodland housing scheme. That was way back in 1923, and was never intended as a permanent landmark. The LA Chambers Of Commerce ordered the removal of the last four letters in 1949, to reflect the district rather than the development. The letters stood 50ft high, and were illuminated by some 4000 light-bulbs.

Albert Kothe was the sign's official caretaker during the twenties & thirties. He lived in a cabin behind the first 'L', and it was his job to change the bulbs when one went out. One day he got drunk and drove his 1928 Model A Ford into the 'H' and knocked it down. When Woodruff & Shoult's maintenance grant expired in 1939, Albert was dismissed. That's about as much information as I can find about Albert Kothe.

So my question is this: why haven't the Coen Brothers made a movie about this guy? His job was to change the light-bulbs in the Hollywood Sign. That was his job! How do you get a gig like that? S'far as I can see, the Legend Of Albert Kothe is a movie that must be made. It's got it all. The era - dawn of the New West, early Hollywood, the Jazz Age. 'Chinatown' vibes. A great, iconic location. The pathos of a man hired to keep a monument to fame illuminated at all times, while he himself lives in isolated anonymity. I mean, it's perfect. Granted, you'd have to pad out the narrative a little, get a little factional, maybe throw some romantic interest in there for Albert or something. Like, you've got this story about Albert getting drunk and driving into the 'H', and there's another story I read about an actress called Peg Entwistle who committed suicide by throwing herself off the same letter in 1923. Maybe you could write it like Albert and Peg were in love or something. Or maybe she didn't commit suicide at all, and like the real estate guys threw her off the 'H' to generate some publicity for their development. Anyway, whatever. I'd maybe get the cat who played Max Cherry in 'Jackie Brown' to play Albert.

I'm off to write this script right now.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Allen Klein 1931-2009

"Though I walk in the shadow of the valley of evil, I have no fear, because I am the biggest bastard in the valley"
- Klein's personal adaption of the23rd Psalm

The Beatles story is populated by divisive figures, guest stars and bit-players whose role in the narrative splits the opinion of dedicated Fabs fanatics; Yoko, the Maharishi, even George Martin. But few characters were as divisive a force amongst the Beatles themselves as manager Allen Klein, who passed away aged 77 at the weekend.

By the time Klein officially entered the scene in '69 (having met Lennon informally two years earlier during the filming of the Stones' Rock & Roll Circus), the Beatles were already in meltdown. Having been essentially manger-less since Brian Epstein's passing in '67, the street-tough New Yorker, (and ex-Stones manager), was summoned to the struggling Apple Corps by Lennon as a possible replacement. Harrison & Starr supported the motion, but McCartney favoured showbiz attorney Lee Eastman - father of McCartney's wife, Linda. While Klein's ball-busting, cold-blooded methods in all likelihood saved Apple from bankruptcy, McCartney refused to sign with him, taking on Eastman as his personal manager in 1970. This split became the kernel around which the shocking bitterness and animosity of the Beatles post-breakup period formed.

No doubt about it, Klein revelled in his bad-ass status. He's up there with with Albert Grossman & Peter Grant in the premier division of heavy-duty rock managers. By all accounts he did a lot of good for The Beatles, and handled their business better, in many respects, than Epstein ever did. You can see why Lennon dug him - above all things, Lennon admired honesty, balls-out straight-forwardness, and Klein was about as straight a sharp-shooter as they came. Equally you can see why McCartney was wary; contemporary reports from New York regarding Klein's brutally 'unconventional' business methods would certainly have been enough to concern the most naturally cautious Beatle.

Like all Beatles cameo-players, Klein's legacy and reputation will be debated and re-evaluated by Fabs scholars for years to come. History may yet look kindly on the 'biggest bastard in the valley'.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Joan Didion 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' (1968)

So I picked this up in some second-hand book store in York this afternoon for £1. It's a collection of essays and articles about California in the late '60s, most of which appeared originally in the Saturday Evening Post. I knew nothing about Didion, or the book, but figured a buncha journalism on this topic was unlikely to disappoint me entirely. Having Googled it, turns out 'Slouching' is kind of a big deal, and Didion has done a heap of stuff I'm now gonna try to track down. She even called one collection of essays (on Manson, Black Panthers, the acid scene etc) 'The White Album', which is pretty cool.

The revolutionary literary school of 'New Journalism' coincided with an era of US history (eary 60s - mid 70s) with which I have an enduring fascination, and this means that I have the luxury of the period having been documented in vivid, fast-paced, personal prose by many great, unconventional newspaper people, notably Tom Wolff, Norman Mailer, Micheal Herr, Hunter S Thompson, Lester Bangs and, apparently, Joan Didion. Occasionally blurring fact and fiction, and frequently pushing journalistic boundaries to place themselves at the centre of the story, these writers have provided me with a vast library of first-person reportage from the front-line of history. They take you right into the heart of darkness.

So I'm happy to have stumbled across Joan Didion. She seems like the sorta writer pseudo-intellectual types would be overheard debating at a dinner party during a late 70s Woody Allen movie . For what it's worth, her stuff is pretty 'Fear & Loathing', there's a palpable sense of End Times doom and dread underscoring most of these articles. Hunter, though, I can find exhausting - he drags you along on his rampages whether you like it or not. Reading a Hunter S Thompson novel is like being kidnapped. Didion is much cooler. She's funny, too, exceptionally dry, allowing absurd statements from her bizarre cast late 60s archetypes just hang in the air;

" 'I remember I wanted to be a veterinarian once,' Debbie says. 'But now I'm more or less working in the vein of being an artist or a model or a cosmetologist. Or something.' "

Anybody with an interest in this era should totally check out Didion's work. I can only assume a general cultural misogyny has been responsible for me not discovering her earlier, because she appears to be very much the equal of her male peers. I'll be sure to write about her again when I get the chance to enjoy more of her work.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Network (Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1976): How Jon Stewart Is A Real Life Howard Beale

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

So I just watched this for the first time today. It won a bunch of Oscars, stars one of my favourite actors - William Holden, you may know him as Pike 'If they move, kill 'em' Bishop from The Wild Bunch - as well as Faye Dunaway (terrifyingly good) and Peter Finch (pictured, insanely good), and I've heard Jon Stewart reference it now and again, which figures. Broadly speaking, 'Network' is a darkly comic, but deadly serious, satire of US TV news. S'bout an old-school, Ed Murrow-era type anchorman called Howard Beale, works for a failing TV network. One day, during a live broadcast, he goes nuts and starts preachin' The Truth About American Society, and instead of pulling the plug, ball-bustin', power-crazed producer Faye Dunaway thinks they might finally have A Hit Show on their hands, so they let Beale keep going on live TV being wacko and ranting and raving, and the show becomes the top-rated news show in the country, this huge cult builds around him and yadda yadda yadda, news-as-entertainment, dwindling journalistic standards in the post-Watergate era, cult of personality, you get the picture. Beale's rants are scripted brilliantly ("This tube [TV] is the gospel, the ultimate revelation; this tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world!"), and performed by Finch with bug-eyed relish. The scene in the Black Panther-ish commune, where a super-bad ass Angela Davis type gets sucked into the world of TV legalese ("Don't fuck with my distribution costs!"), is just one stand-out scene in a film full of 'em. The movie is a stone-cold killer, and undoubtedly deserves every accolade it's ever had.

What I really dug was that while Beale may be 'mad as hell', 'Network' itself isn't, it doesn't come off angry, it doesn't sneer at the world it's satirising. Instead the tone is one of bewildered desperation, and black-humoured amusement. Anybody who enjoys The Daily Show should really check out Network, becuase I'm sure it's a movie Stewart and the whole team must think about alot. To some extent, Stewart's persona on the Daily Show is very similar to that of the post-breakdown Beale - the last honest anchorman, pulling his hair out, screaming at the insanity of the world and the moral vacuity of those we rely on to tell us about it, trying to get somebody's, anybody's, attention, to get people to listen. Like the fictional Beale, this persona has afforded Stewart bone-fide, international cult anti-hero status. He has become an oracle, somebody who can be trusted, somebody who is not willing to play along with the rules of a game that hurts so many people. The image of The One News Guy Telling The Truth, in a spin-dominated culture where we have come to numbly accept half-truths, quater-truths, subterfuge, gossip, dumbness, laziness and lies from our media, has a greater currency now than it did even in 1976.