Rocks In The Attic #416: John Carpenter – ‘Escape From New York’ (1981)

RITA#416John Carpenter films are everything an adolescent boy needs growing up. I can’t remember which of his films I saw first – probably Big Trouble In Little China, as it seemed to reach a more mainstream audience when it was released – but Escape From New York will always be my favourite.

It was always a goal to see the film when I was growing up, right from when I first knew the film existed. I have a clear memory of seeing the front cover of the video that somebody had rented – the great image of Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance and Adrienne Barbeau running away from a horde of nasties, down a dark New York City street dwarfed by the decapitated head of the Statue Of Liberty. I don’t know who rented it – maybe my parents, maybe a neighbour – but I remember being told that ‘it wasn’t for me’. I must have been really young – maybe four or five when it was released on VHS in the UK. It’s funny when you’re not allowed something; it just makes you want it more. The Statue Of Liberty image must have stuck in my head because as soon as I could, I sought it out.

The set-up is brilliant:

In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.
Add to that the marvellous minimalistic score by John Carpenter – possibly my favourite film score of all time – and you have the perfect launching-off point for a science-fiction film. The ingredients are perfect: a Han Solo-esque lead character, an anti-hero in a future without heroes; a futuristic setting in a well-known location; and a premise – the rescue of the President of the United States of America, and a McGuffin involving plans for a powerful new weapon – that the whole world can invest in.

Over time, it’s become even more endearing. The film is set in 1997 – now eighteen years in the past. What was once so futuristic – the last dying years of the twentieth century – now seem so lodged in the past. Yet the film still makes sense. It’s still within the realms of possibility that crime in the America would get to such an irreversible point that the authorities would wash their hands of it and create a super-prison. I’ve often thought about the chances of the New Zealand government sending the inmates of our overflowing prisons to the barren wastes of Stewart Island – who hasn’t? Although the cynical twenty-first century motivation behind this would probably be the government wanting to turn the resulting empty prisons into luxury apartment blocks.

The twin towers of the World Trade Centre even make an appearance in Escape From New York, being the landing point for Snake’s entrance into New York – another facet of the film that firmly places it in the past. Even the music could now be considered out of date. In 1981, it would have sounded futuristic – sequenced computer music to appeal to the video-game generation. Today, it still sounds like the future, just a version of the future that’s now locked in the past.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: The Bank Robbery

Rocks In The Attic #415: The Commodores – ‘Machine Gun’ (1974)

RITA#415It’s a shame the Commodores are in black and white on the cover of this. I suspect they’re wearing the same colour skivvies as the Wiggles. Wake up Lionel!

Machine Gun has to be one of my favourite R&B songs – second only to Pick Up The Pieces by the Average White Band. This is the sort of music I was turning to just after I left my DJing gig in the early 2000s. I walked out on that gig after the bar manager asked me to play more Limp Bizkit – I think history deems me the righteous winner in that exchange.

I prefer an alternate timeline, one where Lionel Ritchie doesn’t go solo, one where he stays in the Commodores and they churn out dirty R&B stompers like Brick House and Machine Gun year after year after year. How fabulous. And no Hello or Dancing On The Ceiling

Hit: Machine Gun

Hidden Gem: The Assembly Line

Rocks In The Attic #414: The Beatles – ‘Let It Be’ (1970)

RITA#414I always knew Phil Spector killed that woman – he murdered Let It Be.

Do you ever wish that a record didn’t exist? If the Beatles had ended on a high – with the second side of Abbey Road, their run of albums would have been perfect. Instead we get this half-arsed bookend of a record, essentially a collection of out-takes from a project the band had enough sense to knock on the head.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great moments on here. In fact it’s nearly all great – I could just do without the junk mental state of Lennon’s songwriting (Dig It, Dig A Pony), McCartney’s gushing over-sentimentality (The Long And Winding Road, Let It Be), lazy ideas (Maggie Mae, The One After 909) and just the general way it’s (poorly) presented. George Martin’s absence in the producer’s chair is severely noted.

I don’t envy Spector’s task – putting together an LP’s worth of good material out of a seemingly endless bunch of recording sessions where the band were clearly running out of direction would have been a horrible task. Taken on their own, some of the songs are as strong as anything else in their canon – their just diluted by poor production, and cursed by a back-to-basics approach that the band was following (effectively appeasing McCartney who was trying to play leader again – a musician who had seldom flashes of brilliance after 1969, and has probably done more harm than good in that time).

Maybe the problem of Let It Be is that it’s effectively presented as a studio album – and to the average listener that’s all it is – but in fact it’s something different: half a live album (the Twickenham studios material, and Get Back from the Saville Row rooftop) and half a studio album (the Apple studios material). At least it’s daring to be different. Maybe I should stop being so hard on it.

Hit: Let It Be

Hidden Gem: For You Blue

Rocks In The Attic #413: Cilla Black – ‘The Best Of Cilla Black’ (1968)

RITA#413Dear old Cilla died last week – a week that also cost us my favourite wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, as well as George ‘Arthur Daley’ Cole from the TV show Minder. They say that things like this always come in threes.

As I get older, it seems to affect me more when celebrities die. It’s like something from my childhood dying. I can’t say I was ever a big fan of Cilla when I was growing up though. She seemed to embody trash television – either on Surprise Surprise or hosting the ever-woeful Blind Date. Her days as a number one solo artist from Brian Epstein’s stable, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lennon and McCartney were a thing of the past by then. Her lot in life really was entertaining prime time audiences on Saturday and Sunday nights.

When I was growing up I remember that whenever he saw her on TV my Dad used to say that Cilla got to where she is with a mattress strapped to her back. I’m not entirely sure I agree with that. I mean, it’s clear to see that she’s talented, with a soaring singing voice, so she had no reason to sleep her way to the top. And if you’re talking about the first person to give her a break, I’m not sure Brian Epstein would even know what to do with her vagina.

There are four Lennon and McCartney songs on this album, three of which were never recorded by the Beatles. That makes this essential listening for any fan of the fab four.

Hit: Alfie

Hidden Gem: Sing A Rainbow

Rocks In The Attic #412: Terence Trent D’Arby – ‘The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby’ (1987)

RITA#412Singing with conviction is a big thing for a pop singer. It’s one of the reasons Michael Jackson was such a superstar. Singing a song and making it sound like the whole world depends on the lyrics coming out of your mouth is a skill not shared by many. James Brown was born with it. As was Sam & Dave and dozens of other soul singers. It’s not just a black thing though – Kevin Rowland from Dexys Midnight Runners has it too, to name just one honky.

Terence Trent D’Arby definitely has it. It’s a technique with its roots in gospel. Conviction means believing in what you’re singing / saying, and if you’re stood singing in church it’s an extension of your faith. Move over momma, I love the Lord more than you! James Brown came from that gospel tradition, as did Michael Jackson, following very much in James’ footsteps.

Terence Trent D’Arby really started off strongly. He came out of the gates running, and so you wouldn’t be blamed for putting a huge stack of money on him to win. Pop music is a steeplechase though, not a sprint, and after a few jumps his career began to falter. I have a soft spot for She Kissed Me from his third album, but he’s just one of many artists who failed to live up to the expectations set up by their first offering.

Ultimately, more glue factory than Grand National.

Hit: Sign Your Name

Hidden Gem: As Yet Untitled

Rocks In The Attic #411: Tame Impala – ‘Currents’ (2015)

RITA#411I don’t often buy contemporary music, but when I do…

This is the third release from one-man-band Kevin Parker, a resident of Fremantle, Western Australia.  Parker seemingly listened to Tomorrow Never Knows by the Beatles on a loop throughout his childhood. Who can blame him? What else is there to do in Perth anyway? Chase flies? Work on your tan?

That isolation from the rest of Australia – and from the rest of the world – has seen other artists sprout out of Fremantle, namely Bon Scott from the mighty AC/DC. There’s even a statue of Scott erected in the harbour in Fremantle. I wonder if Parker has seen that statue since it was built in 2008. If he has, I wonder what he thought about it. Given the hipster mentality, I’m guessing he thinks it’s just about the worst thing that could potentially happen to somebody. If they proposed it, he might die from embarrassment, and then they’d definitely have to build one in his honour. How awful…

Tame Impala’s third marks a slight departure from the garage rock sound of Innerspeaker and Lonerism. There are noticeably more synths this time around, but essentially it retains that similar sound – rotating soundscapes, dreamy vocals and what feels like a never-ending toy box of musical instruments. The drums sound more programmed rather than played, and so it’s not a million miles away from where Daft Punk were moving to on the more chilled out moments of Random Access Memories. The Less I Know The Better sounds like it could have been on Ladyhawke’s debut album – and in fact a decent chunk of the album has that lovely, dreamy ‘80s pop thing going on, in the vein of Cliff Martinez’s score for Drive (2011).

Since buying Currents, I’ve hardly had it off my turntable. Opening track Let It Happen is currently my favourite song of the moment – almost eight minutes of Kevin Parker giving the world an update on where his head is at the moment. Here’s to album number four.

Hit: Let It Happen

Hidden Gem: The Less I Know The Better

Rocks In The Attic #410: Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)

RITA#410For many people, this is Michael’s debut record; in reality, it’s very far from that, being solo album number five. But just like Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From (and the later Music Of My Mind), it marked a departure away from the Motown hit machine – a kind of talent school / youth prison for both performers.

The big three Michael Jackson albums – Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad – are really the three pop albums of my childhood. My Dad was a big fan of his – introducing Thriller to me, and hungry for more I greedily consumer the two albums bookending it. Of the three it’s clearly the least adventurous – with one foot firmly placed in the disco camp, Michael isn’t a superstar yet but you can hear the DNA of his songwriting and melodies that would come to the fore on Thriller.

I would classify Off The Wall as ‘not quite enough’, Thriller as ‘perfect’ and Bad as ‘too much’. The three work great together to show his progression from a talented black singer to a white oddball superstar – and I loved every step of the journey. I could never get into his post-Bad material though; his version of reality went askew extremely rapidly and aside a few highlights like Scream with his sister Janet, I couldn’t really care less if he recorded anything after 1987.

I still miss his pop genius. There’s nobody who can write a bridge / middle eight with so much passion it makes it sound like he’s singing about the end of the world.

Hit: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

Hidden Gem: Off The Wall