Rocks In The Attic #861: Johnny Winter – ‘Woodstock, Sunday, August 17, 1969’ (1969)

RITA#861I’m fairly naive when it comes to the Winter brothers. They Only Come Out At Night, the third studio album by younger brother Edgar, and the first by his Edgar Winter Group, is a regular on my turntable – for both Frankenstein and Free Ride – but I’d never heard anything by older brother Johnny.

All that changed during my ongoing campaign to pick up all of the individual Woodstock live sets. They’re really starting to flood the market now, with releases by Santana, Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence, and the long-available triple-LP Hendrix set. Johnny Winters’ 8-song set is presented as a double-LP, nicely giving the 55-minute running time space to breathe.

RITA#861aAnd boy, Johnny can play. It’s clear that he was born with a guitar in his hand, and with a brother this proficient you can understand why Edgar gravitated towards keyboards (and everything else in his multi-instrumentalist arsenal). It also seems fairly par-for-the-course that Johnny would end his Woodstock set with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode: People passing by they would stop and say / “Oh my, what that little country boy could play”. Chuck could have been writing about Winter himself.

The Woodstock releases are set to continue throughout the rest of 2020. A release of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s set has been delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak, and has been pushed back towards to August, and then after that, who knows…

Hit: Johnny B. Goode

Hidden Gem: Mama, Talk To Your Daughter

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Rocks In The Attic #860: Various Artists – ‘Kill Bill Vol. 2 (O.S.T.)’ (2004)

RITA#860I think the reason I’ve not gone back to this film as much as the first one is that as a pair they’re so uneven. The first film is front-loaded with all the action, and then all the exposition and character development ends up crammed into the second film. It makes for a strange double-feature.

We catch up with Uma Thurman’s Bride as she’s driving down a desert road. She delivers a monologue straight to camera:

Looked dead, didn’t I? Well, I wasn’t. But it wasn’t from lack of trying, I can tell you that. Actually, Bill’s last bullet put me in a coma – a coma I was to lie in for four years. When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements refer to as “a roaring rampage of revenge.” I roared, and I rampaged, and I got bloody satisfaction. I’ve killed a hell of a lot of people to get to this point, but I’ve only one more. The last one. The one I’m driving to right now. The only one left. And when I arrive at my destination, I am gonna kill Bill.

We open in the Two Pines wedding chapel. We’ve seen this location before, in the black and white flashback sequences of Vol. 1, but here we get to see the whole thing play out. There’s a wonderful Orson Welles-worthy crane shot towards the end of sequence, where the camera drifts back through the aisle, out of the doors as we see Bill’s assassins walk into the chapel, ending with an aerial shot as the gunfire starts. It’s probably my favourite shot of the film; stellar filmmaking.

RITA#860aThe intertextuality and references to Tarantino’s earlier works keep on coming, with a short but memorable cameo by Tarantino-regular Samuel L. Jackson. Moments later, we’re introduced to David Carradine’s Bill, the Caine of Kung Fu that Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction aspired to be at the close of that film.

A few scenes later, at the trailer of Michael Madsen’s Budd – which pre-dates Brad Pitt’s set-up in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – Budd captures the Bride, who has been waiting to kill him. Budd calls Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver and says “I just caught me the cowgirl”. The line immediately echoes a similar scene in Pulp Fiction, where the pawn-shop owner Maynard captures a bloodied Butch and Marsellus (Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames): “Zed? It’s Maynard. The spider just caught a coupl’a flies.” RZA’s underscoring with the melody line from Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) over this scene is very nice, and probably his finest moment in terms of original composition. Much later, at the close of the film, Bill describes the Bride as a ‘natural born killer’, and if that isn’t a reference to an earlier Tarantino script, then I don’t know what is.

It’s not all great though. Michael Madsen’s conversation with his strip-club owner boss is the very definition of filler. It doesn’t go anywhere, and his subsequent character development belies the fact that he probably wouldn’t put up with somebody so annoying and unthreatening.

My other major gripe is the use of Malcolm McLaren’s About Her – a rewrite of the Zombies’ She’s Not There. It’s a nice track from McLaren’s 2005 album Tranquilize, and uses a Bessie Smith sample (‘My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea’) similar to how Moby deployed old-timey samples on 1999’s Play, but the prominence of those lyrics – ‘Well nobody told me about her’ – to soundtrack the moment the Bride is reunited with her daughter is just awful. Shoehorning the lyrics of a pop song to lazily describe the events in a film is something a hack director would do. Who’s responsible for this choice of song? Tarantino or RZA? The rest of the soundtrack is amazing, and what you’d expect from a Tarantino film, but this one song is definitely its weakest point.

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The buried alive / grave sequence is absolutely horrible, particularly so if you don’t like enclosed spaces. It gets me in the same way as a similar scene in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. The shot of the Bride walking across the road into the diner is a nice little capper. A lesser director would have played the shot more for laughs – particularly as she’s walking out of a cemetery looking like that – but Tarantino gives us just the right amount of levity, without breaking the sombre tone of the film.

The standout scene of the film though is the trailer fight between the Bride and Elle Driver. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten about this. It’s the best close-quarters fight this side of a Bond film (see From Russia With Love, Diamonds Are Forever, SPECTRE), and manages to tread the line between serious and hilarious, influencing a similar scene in Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher.

Hit: Goodnight Moon – Shivaree

Hidden Gem: Summertime Killer – Luis Bacalov

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Rocks In The Attic #859: Johnny Cash – ‘American Recordings’ (1994)

RITA#859A nice bit of serendipity occurred recently. I was playing Johnny Cash’s American Recordings album, the first of his six with Rick Rubin, and the only one I own. I posted on the Vinyl Lovers Of New Zealand group on Facebook, as I always do, that I was listening to it.

‘I really must seek out more of these,’ I wrote. ‘I’ve heard them all, of course, but this is the only one I have on record.’ At $50 a pop brand-new, it was unlikely I’d ever stump for them all in one go, and I never saw them in second-hand racks. My long-term goal was to buy one a year or so, until I had them all.

A comment from one of my fellow VLONZers said ‘I have NM copies of III, IV, V and VI, as well as Unchained [II] for sale in great condition. PM me if interested.’

I jumped at the chance and $100 later – just $20 per record for the ones I didn’t have – I now have the full set.

RITA#859aThe first record in the six represents the start of a late-career resurgence for Cash, at the height of grunge. Producer Rick Rubin had seen Cash perform at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert in 1992 and felt he had been overlooked and forgotten by the music industry and the record-buying public.

Recorded between May and December of 1993, the bulk of the album was recorded in two key locations: Rick Rubin’s living room in L.A. and Cash’s cabin in Tennessee. Two additional live performances were captured at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room on Sunset Strip, just five weeks after the actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose there.

Unlike the subsequent albums in the American series, which finds Cash backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers alongside a who’s who of guest appearances, the first record is performed completely by Cash himself, just a voice and a guitar. It therefore doesn’t have the grunt of those later records – and it’s a long way from the perfection of American IV: The Man Comes Around. But it’s still a great album, full of what Rolling Stone called ‘biblical intensity’, highlighted by Rubin’s ‘no-frills production’.

Tennessee Stud, one of the songs recorded at the Viper Room, was originally written by Jimmy Driftwood in 1959. It probably stands as the most well-known track from the album, if only for its inclusion one year later on Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown soundtrack. The song perfectly encapsulates the ethos of the American project, and gives an indication of what was to come: the opportunity for Cash to breathe life into cover songs, old and new, alongside a brace of originals, to bring his music to a new audience.

Hit: Tennessee Stud

Hidden Gem: Drive On

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Rocks In The Attic #858: Various Artists – ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1 (O.S.T.)’ (2003)

RITA#858The 4th film from Quentin Tarantino, the opening credits tell us, with balls the size of watermelons. It’s here that Tarantino starts to recognise his own legacy. Not only is he numbering his films – surely the first sign of his subsequent plan of only directing ten films – but it’s with Kill Bill that he starts to litter the Tarantino-verse with references to his earlier works.

In the film’s first post-credits scene, Uma Thurman’s character (‘The Bride’ AKA Beatrix Kiddo) arrives at Vernita Green’s house, her first target for revenge. With their knife-fight interrupted by Green’s daughter returning from school, the two call a temporary truce and head to the kitchen for coffee. There, the Bride explains how she’ll first kill Green, then her daughter and then her husband. “That’ll be even Vernita…that’ll be about square.” As she says that last word, she traces the outline of a square in the air with her right hand. The gesture is surely a reference to Thurman’s earlier character in the Tarantinoverse, Mia Wallace from 1994’s Pulp Fiction. In that film, on her night out with John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, she tells him not to be a square, again tracing the outline of a square – which Tarantino sneakily overlays with a rectangle in post-production.

Even Thurman’s character in Kill Bill is described in dialogue by Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace nine years earlier. She explains to Vega how she once appeared in a failed TV pilot, whose characters almost perfectly describe the Bride and her former team of assassins:

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RITA#858aMIA: It was a show about a team of secret agents called Fox Force Five.

VINCENT: What?

MIA: Fox Force Five. Fox, as in we’re a bunch of foxy chicks. Force, as in we’re a force to be reckoned with. Five, as in there’s one…two…three…four…five of us. There was a blonde on, Sommerset O’Neal, from that show Baton Rouge, she was the leader. A Japanese one, a black one, a French one, and a brunette one, me. We all had special skills. Sommerset had a photographic memory, the Japanese fox was a kung-fu master, the black girl was a demolition expert, the French fox’s specialty was sex…

VINCENT: What was your specialty?

MIA: Knives. The character I played, Raven McCoy, her background was she was raised by circus performers. So she grew up doing a knife act. According to the show, she was the deadliest woman in the world with a knife. But because she grew up in a circus, she was also something of an acrobat. She could do illusions, she was a trapeze artist – when you’re keeping the world safe from evil, you never know when being a trapeze artist’s gonna come in handy.

*

And the references to the Tarantinoverse don’t end there. Michael Parks’ world-weary sheriff is surely the same character he played in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, we glimpse Michael Madsen in a black suit a la 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, and the boardroom rant by Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii echoes Pulp Fiction’s opening rant by Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny (“Any of you fucking pricks move and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!”).

But the casting of Sonny Chiba as master swordsmith Hattori Hanzō is perhaps Tarantino’s greatest coup. In what must have been a dream come true for the director, the casting of Chiba refers back to one of Tarantino’s earliest scripts. In 1993’s True Romance, written by Tarantino but directed by Tony Scott, Christian Slater’s Clarence meets Patricia Arquette’s Alabama at an all-night theatre, watching a Sonny Chiba triple-feature (“The Streetfighter, Return Of The Streetfighter, and Sister Streetfighter”).

I remember seeing Kill Bill Vol.1 at the cinema and being blown away. But each time I’ve seen it since, I’ve always felt it to be a little bloated, not as much as it’s Vol. 2 companion piece, but there’s definitely some breathing space put into each scene.

That first segment with Vernita Green, post fight, is perhaps the slowest scene in the entire film. We’re finding out a little bit about what has happened to bring the Bride here, but it’s the one time I wish Tarantino had followed a linear storyline by putting the hospital scenes first. Strangely, the Vernita scene and the hospital scene played out of order is essentially the only non-linear aspect of the narrative, excluding the flashbacks to the wedding.

The split-screen over Bernard Herrmann’s Twisted Nerve as Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver changes into her nurse’s uniform is fantastic, and goes hand in hand as the most cinematic moment of the film with the later scene scored with Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor Or Humanity as the Bride speeds off on her bike and O-Ren Ishii walks into the House Of Blue Leaves.

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One break-out star of Kill Bill is somebody who goes largely unnoticed in the film, but whose contributions are priceless: Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell. The nature of the fight choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping led Tarantino and his Western crew into a different way of working. Schedules were abandoned and sequences were added or deleted to better suit the narrative.  The change in mindset led to another important decision: the promotion of Bell from a low-tier ‘crash and smash’ stuntwoman to a full-on stunt double for Thurman. The shoot thrust her into the (face-covered) limelight, but left her with broken ribs and a dislocated wrist.

Tarantino stuck with her and she subsequently appeared as either an actress or stuntwoman in all of his subsequent films. I met her at the New Zealand premiere of The Hateful Eight in January 2016 where she was kind enough to sign my copies of Death Proof and The Hateful Eight. In hindsight, I should have asked her to autograph everything from Kill Bill onwards, given her impact on the Tarantinoverse.

The Kill Bill films mark Tarantino’s first musical collaboration with another artist, RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, who contributed score elements and also acted as co-producer of the soundtrack alongside Tarantino and Lawrence Bender. About a dozen or so tracks were left off the accompanying soundtrack, either used in the film or in its promotional material and so an expanded soundtrack one day is a definite possibility. My only gripe is that so much is left of the resulting soundtrack to fit in all ten and a half minutes of Santa Esmeralda’s nauseatingly camp cover of the Animals’ arrangement of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (it’s the Animals version of the song, rather than the Nina Simone original, as the European disco group also recorded a version of House Of The Rising Sun).

Hit: Twisted Nerve – Bernard Herrmann

Hidden Gem: Run Fay Run – Isaac Hayes

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Rocks In The Attic #857: Bill Hicks – ‘Revelations – Live In London’ (1993)

RITA#857I try not to get offended about things. Most of the time, I don’t let things get to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been offended by something that a comedian has said on stage. They’re just jokes, and even the ones that are designed to offend are usually admirable in how well they’ve been crafted.

Even the likes of Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr – two comedians who have a no-nonsense, offensive streak to their act – are comedy heroes of mine. They might make a joke about paralympians or the holocaust, or any number of taboo topics, but it’ll still make me laugh. The joke itself is usually funnier than its subject.

It’s a dangerous game though. Where do you draw the line? And who decides on what subjects are off-limits? Only last night I made a joke about Phil Spector, the famous record producer, in a Facebook thread. I was told my joke was in very bad taste, and yet the individual defending him seemed to be completely unaware – or in disbelief – of the fact that Spector is a convicted murderer.

RITA#857bI recently heard a BBC Radio 4 special called Ellie Taylor’s Safe Space (synopsis: ‘Stand-up Ellie Taylor airs her controversial opinions in her Safe Space’). I like Ellie Taylor; she can regularly be seen with Nish Kumar on The Mash Report, and has appeared on the likes of Live At The Apollo and Mock The Week. She’s a great comedian and, like Boyle and Carr, specialises in making light of offensive subjects.

Interspersed with her stand-up routine in the show were segments where Taylor would interview audience members and ask them about any controversial opinions they might have. The amnesty mined generally inoffensive points of view; unpopular opinions rather than offensive ones. For example, the first audience member thought that ‘Game Of Thrones / Breaking Bad – i.e. the best shows in the last ten years – are really not as good as they’re said to be’. As I said: unpopular but not offensive.

But one audience-member’s opinion did get my attention. Remember, this is coming not only from a Radio 4 listener, but one so involved with the station that they will seek tickets to, and then attend, the filming of one if its shows.

Mr. Val Jennings’ opinion was that ‘For those who can afford it – particularly people who happily subscribe to Sky, Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc – the license fee should be increased.’ When Taylor asked Jennings if he subscribed to any of these services, he replied with ‘No. The license fee is perfectly adequate for everything you need.’ He then suggested that those people should pay an additional £20 per year for their BBC license fee. The audience grumbled; I would have shouted ‘Bullshit!’

RITA#857aWho made this guy the arbiter of what content is suitable and not suitable for people? It has to be mentioned that Breaking Bad – generally regarded, as above, as one of the best shows in the last ten years – was never originally broadcast on British television. You had to subscribe to Sky to watch it. One of the freeview channels, 5USA, broadcast the second season in 2011, but didn’t pick up any of the subsequent seasons. You either had to buy or rent the DVDs, or wait until the launch of Netflix in 2012 to see the rest of the show.

Val’s argument – that the content offered by BBC radio and television through its license fee is perfectly adequate – seems to dismiss all content that is not offered through these channels. It sounds like the sort of argument a similarly-minded person would have made when television was inaugurated in the 1930s: ‘The wireless is perfectly adequate for everything you need.’

I’ve never been so offended in my life.

Hit: He Had A Gun

Hidden Gem: Put ‘Em In The Movies

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Rocks In The Attic #856: Ben Folds Five – ‘Whatever And Ever Amen’ (1997)

RITA#856A couple of years ago, I was in Sydney for the weekend to visit my old University flatmate Kaj. On the Friday night, we went to see the Orpheum’s monthly screening of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room – my first experience of throwing plastic spoons at a cinema screen. After the film, we walked to the piano bar across the road. I’ve never seen anything like it. Expecting a cocktail bar, with easy-listening muzak played to an upper middle-class crowd, instead I found a mainly young crowd dancing to an extremely energetic pianist playing the hits of the last twenty or thirty years. At one point, somebody requested some Ben Folds, and he played a frantic version of this album’s opening number, One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces. Wonderful.

I think I owe my love of this album to Moo, who recommended it to me in the early 2000s (thank you Moo!). I think I had heard something by the band and wasn’t sold on Fold’s vocals; completely ignoring his piano chops and the pop sensibilities of his songwriting.

RITA#856aLanding in 1997, the trio’s second album is as alternative and, dare I say, grunge, as anything American from that decade. Folds mashes the piano keys like he’s trying to destroy it, Robert Sledge takes songs to a different level when he switches on the fuzz pedal on his bass, and Darren Jesse’s drums try and keep everything on the right track. The album was recorded in the living room of a house in North Carolina, and as a result it maybe sounds more ‘live’ than a typical studio recording.

Featuring hit MTV single Brick – an autobiographical tale of Folds taking an ex-girlfriend to get an abortion – the album boasts a further four singles, all worthy of airplay. Although, despite it being one of the funniest break-up songs around, one has to wonder how much radioplay final single Song For The Dumped would have got, given its chorus of ‘Give me my money back, give me my money back, you bitch!’.

I saw Ben Folds on his last tour of New Zealand in 2018. I’d have been happy with a greatest hits set, but he was touring a Paper Aeroplane Request show. A novel idea, he performed a normal set for the first half, before taking requests thrown on the stage by paper aeroplane for the second half. He only played one song – Steven’s Last Night In Town – from this album, focusing on his solo career and weird b-side requests from more ardent fans.  Hopefully he’ll be back one day when live music is a feasible option again.

Hit: Brick

Hidden Gem: Evaporated

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Rocks In The Attic #855: Flame – ‘Flame’ (1978)

RITA#855Flame is the self-titled second and final studio album by the band, erm, Flame. Signed to RCA and produced by Jimmy Iovine, the band would have been forever resigned to history, had it not been for their lead guitarist. A year after this record was released, Jimmy Crespo found himself drafted into the ailing Aerosmith to replace the recently departed Joe Perry.

Flame were finished by that point. The band had called it a day after two albums that nobody noticed. Crespo returned to session work, before catching the attention of Aerosmith’s management team, Steve Leber and David Krebs. Perry had walked out at the very end of the Night In The Ruts sessions, leaving the band with their first studio album in two years in the can. Crespo contributed a guitar solo to Three Mile Smile, and he was in.

RITA#855aFlame’s second album is a fairly unremarkable, run-of-the-mill late ‘70s rock album; but there’s a couple of highlights. Singer Marge Raymond sounds somewhere between Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks, and Crespo’s guitar playing shows promise but nowhere near as incendiary as it would be during his tenure in Aerosmith.

One further consequence of this band is the Aerosmith side-project Renegade. Frustrated with the erratic touring problems of vocalist Steven Tyler, drummer Joey Kramer formed Renegade with Raymond and Crespo from Flame, his Aerosmith bandmate Tom Hamilton on bass, and Bob Mayo from Peter Frampton’s band on keyboards. An album was recorded at New York’s Power Station studio, produced by Tony Bongiovi, but it has never been released. The project was shelved after Tyler heard of the band’s increasing buzz in the music industry, and regrouped his bandmates to fulfil Aerosmith’s contractual obligations.

Hit: This Old Heart Of Mine

Hidden Gem: Don’t You Go

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