Rocks In The Attic #514: Frank Chacksfield – ‘The Music Of George Gershwin’ (1956)

RITA#514Frank Chacksfield has been hiding from me. I’ve just spent the best part of the last hour searching for this record on my shelves. I’m a super nerd when it comes to organising, so my collection is sorted alphabetically, and chronologically within each artist. As a result, things don’t tend to get lost too often. Chacksfield had other ideas though.

After a fruitless search looking side-on at the spines, I started thinking that maybe it had been stolen. Perhaps a burglar had eased his way into the house at night, gliding in stocking feet past the sleeping Great Dane, to remove an obscure orchestral record from 1956 out of my collection.

It could fetch a pretty penny online. I may have discovered it in a charity shop for a dollar or two, but its age – sixty years old – means that a copy in good condition can secure $25 online. The loveliest thing is the disc itself, as heavy as a slab of lead, and with the original deep-red Decca label.

I resorted (or should that be ‘re-sorted’?) to pulling my records out of their indexed prison to flick through the covers one by one. I really need to store my records like this, in racks like you would find at a record store. You see much more that the couple of millimetres that a record spine allows. Starting back from M, I eventually found Chacksfield holidaying in the ‘H’ section. Which dyslexic former version of myself did this?

My suspicion now shifts from the unlikely burglar to the chaotic children of the house. My ‘A’ to ‘M’ section sits in shelves next to play-mat of theirs, waiting for the day when its spines will be sprayed by a mixture of vomit, milk and Weetabix (only they call it Weet-Bix in this heathen country; it still sets like concrete when it dries, so at least some things never change).

I only bought this Chacksfield record because I like Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue from the opening of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I’ve since found that soundtrack, so I have the real thing. I still love this sixty year old record though.

Hit: Rhapsody In Blue

Hidden Gem: Fascinating Rhythm

Rocks In The Attic #513: Geoff Love & His Orchestra – ‘Big Bond Movie Themes’ (1975)

RITA#513a.jpgThere’s a reason that Geoff Love isn’t remembered as a great conductor. He and his orchestra had a tidy little earner recording easy listening versions of film themes, commonly released on the Music For Pleasure label. Anything that was cool about the original source material was stripped away, and all that remains is a schmaltzy version of something that sounds weirdly familiar. It’s the same result as you would expect if James Last recorded the collected works of Kraftwerk, or if Nana Mouskouri covered Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

Of course, the Bond films were full of the odd bit of lounge music, so some of it doesn’t sound too far from the truth. John Barry’s scores are full of tiny snippets of easy listening, usually to soundtrack the moment when Bond is about to bed an exotic looking broad. As a result, Geoff Love’s version of the Thunderball theme sounds like it could have been lifted right off the soundtrack to Barry’s Diamonds Are Forever score, particularly the sections set in the Las Vegas casinos. And a theme as eternally cool as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service could be covered by anybody and it’d still be a thousand times cooler than most other pieces of recorded music.

Still, record collecting gives you the opportunity to pick up little curios in charity shops like this for next to nothing. We always had a copy of Geoff Love’s collection of sci-fi themes next to our record player when I was growing up; it’s now long-gone but I’m sure I’ll find a copy of it one day for next to nothing.

RITA#513bWhilst trying to find a photo cover of Love’s Bond compilation to accompany this blog, I found that there are two covers. The original cover features the likenesses of Roger Moore, Sean Connery and Ursula Andress, while the second pressing – the version I have in my collection – has all of these faces either completely obscured (poor Roger) or completely altered. I’m guessing that Music For Pleasure didn’t do their due diligence when it came to securing the rights for what was essentially an unofficial cash-in on EON’s intellectual property.

Hit: The James Bond Theme

Hidden Gem: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Rocks In The Attic #512: Aerosmith – ‘Anthology’ (1988)

RITA#512Last night I finally watched Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. It’s something I’ve been looking for ever since I saw the first instalment on the 1979 L.A. punk rock scene. I’d heard about Part II ever since I’ve been an Aerosmith fan, and it didn’t disappoint.

Spheeris’ second film in the trilogy charts the comings and goings of L.A.’s glam metal bands from 1986 to 1988, all vying for stardom and attempting to out-do each other in the process. At first glance it’s not immediately clear who’s male and who’s female; the make-up and hairspray is so thick. And speaking of thick, there doesn’t seem to be a smart person among them. They’re the embodiment of Spinal Tap, without a trace of irony or self-awareness.

Intercut with these interviews and live performances are context-providing talking heads with the elder statesmen of the genre: Kiss’ Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy from Motörhead, Dave Mustaine from Megadeth, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.

Aside from the absurdity of  the sections featuring Paul Stanley (lying in a bed with four lace-wearing groupies) and Gene Simmons (standing in a ladies’ clothes store, ogling at women), these interviews are reasonably candid and they come across much better than the young upstarts who are trying to make a name for themselves in the dingy Sunset Strip bars.

Alice Cooper particularly is as lucid as ever, and it’s refreshing to see Ozzy talk openly about the metal scene without the mumble he’s now commonly associated with. Tyler and Perry come across well, with the pair being able to talk with an air of stateliness, having recently hit the big time for a second time with 1987’s Permanent Vacation album.

Their sections are not too different from the content of the interviews in 1989’s The Making Of Pump documentary, with Tyler reeling off soundbites about his drug addictions, and Perry sounding as lugubrious as usual. It must be hard to summon the effort to talk about anything with enthusiasm when your adrenaline reserves have been destroyed through years of drug abuse.

One short shot in the film doesn’t ring quite true. After we’ve seen a domesticated Ozzy cook a fried breakfast with no issues, he goes to pour a bottle of orange juice into some glasses on the kitchen table, and Spheeris cynically inserts a shot of him spilling the orange juice as though he has the shakes. It’s obvious that it’s fake, and exists solely to make Ozzy look like he can’t handle sobriety. The end result is that you lose respect for Spheeris as a filmmaker. She might point her cameras at subjects she believes to be ridiculous, but at least they’re being honest.

Anthology is a rare West German compilation of Aerosmith’s early Columbia output, released on the UK label Castle Communications in 1988. It includes a heap of tracks that don’t feature on any other compilation, so you get, for example, the likes of Push Comes To Shove and the title track from 1982’s Rock In A Hard Place, the mis-titled Bite The Hand That Feeds and Sight For Sore Eyes from 1977’s Draw The Line, and several tracks from 1978’s Live! Bootleg – stadium performances of Walk This Way and Back In The Saddle, and the awesome 1973 Paul’s Mall performance of James Brown’s Mother Popcorn.

Hit: Sweet Emotion

Hidden Gem: Mother Popcorn (Live)

Rocks In The Attic #511: Jasper Carrott – ‘The Stun – Carrott Tells All’ (1983)

RITA#511I have a couple of Jasper Carrott albums; this one, and Rabbits On And On And On….

Two’s more than enough. I don’t think I’ll bother buying any more.

Hit: Hong Kong

Hidden Gem: Virgin Voters

Rocks In The Attic #510: The Police – ‘Zenyatta Mondatta’ (1980)

RITA#510Album number three finds the Police starting to repeat themselves after the white heat of Regatta de Blanc. The big chart-slaying singles are still there, represented here by Don’t Stand So Close To Me and De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da, but the title of that second single betrays a lack of innovation throughout the record.

It’s all perfectly honed, finely crafted pop music, but there’s something missing. The artistic leap between debut album Outlandos d’Amour and their sophomore record seems a thing of the past, and here they seem to churn out more of the same rather than exploring new ideas.

I recently saw the Andy Summers documentary Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police (2012). It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, being a fairly history of the band intercut with their reunion shows in 2007-2008, and narrated by Summers reading from his awesome 2006 One Train Later biography, but it was entertaining enough.

The film spends a bit of time explaining how the band were really under pressure to record this album in a short period of time, and you can hear it, particularly in the album’s tired last couple of songs.

The recording sessions would also mark the first time that cracks would appear in the edifice of the band – Sting refused to play on Summers’ instrumental Behind My Camel, and even resorted to burying the tapes of the song in the garden of the recording studio in Holland. Summers had the last laugh of course, when the song went on to win the Best Rock Instrumental at the Grammy’s the following year.

I love many of Sting’s Police lyrics, but Don’t Stand So Close To Me features one of my favourites. It’s rare that a pop song will name-check a literary classic, but Sting drops a mention of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the final verse – one of my favourite novels.

Hit: Don’t Stand So Close To Me

Hidden Gem: Voices In My Head

Rocks In The Attic #509: Don Davis – ‘The Matrix (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#509I love The Matrix. It’s one of my favourite films of the ‘90s; probably my favourite science-fiction film of that decade. It’s an awesome movie, but I think I like it more for what it represents than for what it actually is. For me, the Matrix represents a truly wonderful thing – the end of George Lucas’ reign over special-effects movies in Hollywood.

Yes, Lucas was responsible for a great deal of my childhood cinema: the three original Star Wars films, and the three original Indiana Jones films. A round of applause, please. But that’s it. Nothing else. His 1973 breakout hit American Graffiti might be an enjoyable slice of 1950s nostalgia, but Back To The Future did it much better in 1985. And let’s not get started on the Star Wars prequels or the fourth Indiana Jones film.

His legacy is one of the things that ultimately curses him: Industrial Light & Magic. The special effects house set up to handle the myriad of effects shots in the first Star Wars film ultimately came to monopolise Hollywood in the decades that followed. The company may have been trendsetters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they hit a peak with the groundbreaking effects in 1992’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but by the late 1990s they had lost their edge. Nothing was special anymore; they had become complacent. The company that had once blown everybody away were now resting on their laurels.

Then a film was released in 1999 out of nowhere. Titled The Matrix, it was written and directed by brothers Larry and Andy (now Lana and Lilly) Wachowski, responsible at that point for only directing one film, Bound (1996), a crime thriller starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.

The Matrix came along with no hype. From the outside it looked like just another science-fiction film out of Hollywood, with a steam-punk aesthetic that we had seen before in dull gothic flicks like The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998). The lack of advance word even led to UK film magazine Empire relegating the film to its ‘Also released this month” section.

I saw the film at the cinema with my good buddy Stotty. Talk about being blown away. I was so engrossed that a Coca-Cola-induced urge to go to the toilet mid-way through had to be repressed. I wasn’t going to miss a second of this, particularly after being sideswiped by the film’s major left turn around twenty minutes in.

The idea, in retrospect, is simple: introduce the audience to the main character, then towards the end of the first act, suggest that the narrative you’re following is a fallacy, and that the film’s protagonist is being similarly hoodwinked. Hollywood had recently provided a film with a similar narrative hook, in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Truman Burbank figures it out for himself when he overhears some radio chatter, almost gets pulverised by a studio light falling out of the sky, and notices the regularity of people bicycling down his street, but in The Matrix, our protagonist relies on others to wake him from his dream. Films ever since have played with the elastic nature of narrative. It seems like they’re ten a penny these days, but back in the late ‘90s it felt refreshing and new.

Everything about The Matrix seemed well thought-out. The design, the cast, the music, the sound, the editing, everything; but what grabbed people most of all were the special effects. The Wachowskis rewrote the book, taking their lead from the infinite possibilities of Japanese Anime rather than traditional Hollywood special effects. Finally, seven years following Terminator 2: Judgement Day, here was something that we hadn’t seen before: Bullet Time.

John Gaeta from Manex Visual Effects, working out of Alameda, California, developed a prototype of the effect prior to the film, and the Wachowskis jumped on it. Gaeta’s concept was based on an old idea – that a moving image is simply a sequence of still images played at high speed – but Gaeta’s application of the method to film action sequences was ingenious.

A simple stunt, for example one character jumping up to kick another character, could be transformed from something very simple to something extraordinary. A rig featuring dozens of still cameras would bet set up around the actors, and the cameras would shoot the movement in the scene, before being compiled together to form a moving image. By employing a fairly simple idea, the filmmakers created the illusion of movement around the action, capturing the shot at super-slow motion, but still travelling at high-speed, hence ‘bullet’ time.

There’s an element of The Matrix borne out of a clichéd Hollywood trope – that of the white male protagonist being the saviour of the universe, or the ‘one’ as Neo’s anagrammatical name would suggest – but despite this, the films manages to still feel fresh. The main protagonist is derivative to a degree, taking the base elements of George Lucas’ original Star Wars conceit – that our hero is possessed with a magical ability to transcend all evil forces – but there’s so much innovation in the film, it’s easy to overlook this. It’s like receiving a pair of socks on Christmas Day, but finding that they turn you invisible when you put them on. Erm, thanks Aunty Flo.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Matrix without mentioning the sequels. At the time, they were exciting but just like the Star Wars prequels from George Lucas (him again), they suffered from a preponderance of weightless digital effects and little in the way of practical effects. Most Hollywood sequels are lazy rehashes of the same ideas that made the first film so interesting. The Wachowskis couldn’t be accused of this though; if anything, they overthought their sequels, giving them a highbrow slant that hasn’t been see in a sequel since The Godfather Part II.

It’s great to have Don Davis’ score to the film on this lovely slab of green wax. I probably enjoy the score as much as I love the pop soundtrack, which despite a few timeless classics is starting to feel very much of its time. I’m not familiar with Don Davis’ other work, but this is a great score – and its refreshing for a big action film to be scored by somebody other than John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Welcome To The Real World

Rocks In The Attic #508: Manfred Mann – ‘Mann Made’ (1965)

RITA#508This is album number two for Manfred Mann – another one of those mid-sixties beat combos that sort of belong in that decade, having never really enjoyed a career revival.

Listening to an instrumental like The Abominable Snowman on side one, or Bear Hugg on side two, there’s an aspect to them that sounds like the ‘swinging London’ you would see in films of the day, and while this sounds like a critique of their work, it’s really just that they have that classic heavy R&B sound that’s so representative of the city at that time.

The only thing that would make the record more London-esque would be a cover photo of them hanging out of the back of a Routemaster London bus, while a pigeon flies into the bowler hat of a businessman passer-by.

The band might be named after their keyboard-playing founder member, but the one thing that sets them apart from other bands at this point is vocalist Paul Jones. He would leave the band after this record, to go solo, while Manfred Mann would soldier on with his replacement, Mike D’Abo.

Hit: Since I Don’t Have You

Hidden Gem: You’re For Me