Monthly Archives: October 2017

Rocks In The Attic #636: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’ (1982)

RITA#636Happy Halloween!

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted local Kiwi soap actor turned Hollywood bit-player Karl Urban in an Auckland shopping mall. After taking a surreptitious photo of him on my phone to send to my jealous wife (a big fan), I retreated with my kids up the escalators to the next level. Halfway up, I turned around to look back, and Urban was following us, a half dozen steps behind. We locked eyes, and I immediately saw the look of dread (dredd?) in his eyes. ‘Oh no…’ I imagined him thinking, ‘…another middle-aged Star Trek fan to make my life a misery. I just wanted to buy some underpants.’

I left him to his shopping (although I believe he was actually going to the cinema, probably the new Queen Latifah film† ), and went off with the kids. If I was any more of a fan, I might have approached him for a selfie, but I’d met him before – my friend asked for his autograph at the same event where I met Quentin Tarantino – and I didn’t get a good vide from him then.

A few minutes later, still buoyed from seeing a Hollywood actor in such a normal place, we stepped inside a shop. Michael Jackson’s Thriller started playing on the shop’s music system just as we walked in. It was the first time in a long time I had heard the song, and definitely the first time in a very long time I had heard it played at a decent volume. Man, what a song. I stayed in there for six minutes, holding my crotch with one hand, the back of my head with the other, and bending my knee in time to the beat, just so I could hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, I’m now banned from all branches of Bendon lingerie.

Often labelled as the best-selling album of all time – and rightly so, despite some strange reporting of sales numbers ranging between 66 million to 120 million – Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a beast of a record. His sixth solo studio record, it is the second album released on the Epic label following 1979’s Off The Wall, traditionally seen as the true starting point of his adult career.

Like Off The Wall, it is produced by Quincy Jones and where the earlier album was a marked departure from Jackson’s recording history with Motown, Thriller went a thousand steps further and turned him into a pop music phenomenon.

Prior to MTV landing in the UK – and light years before such things were readily available on the internet – my Dad would always try and seek out John Landis’ longform music video to Thriller, wherever he could. Every year, there was an American TV show, counting down the top 100 music videos, presented by Casey Kasem, and broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV. I recall my Dad waking me up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion just so we could go and watch the Thriller video in all its gory glory.

That 13-minute video is probably the reason I turned into such a big horror fan in my early teens, and is why I now spend so much time and effort on the internet pre-ordering horror soundtracks from Waxwork Records.

Thriller, the song, is worth the price of admission alone. But it isn’t even the biggest, most enduring hit on there. In fact, it was way down the list, the seventh and final single to be taken from the record.

Side two, song two, kicks off with perhaps one of the greatest locked–in grooves throughout all of pop, soul or funk. It’s such a groove, almost mathematical in its execution, that you can actually see it visually on the surface of the record, almost like a spiral that repeats on every rotation. The song, Billie Jean, is timeless, despite a music video that is – in contrast to the one for Thriller – heavily dated, with graphics and editing techniques showing the early days of MTV on its pastel-pink shirt sleeve.

Beat It, the other US#1 on the record (alongside Billie Jean), is another great song. Proving that Jackson can do hard rock just as well as he can do pop, the song’s centrepiece is a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen – the hottest guitar player at the time. Upon hearing of Jackson’s request to appear on the song, Van Halen initially thought he was being pranked – especially when Jackson phoned and told him, in his high-pitched voice, that “I really like that high, fast stuff you do.” He later recorded his solo in a separate studio to a tape of the backing track, for no charge.

Beat It is clearly the heaviest song on the record, forewarned by a series of ominous synthesiser gongs on the intro (lifted note for note from a demo recording of the Synclavier II synthesiser). The lyrics re-imagine Jackson as a street punk – an idea he would revisit on the title track of his next album, Bad. However, where Beat It genuinely sounds tough, Bad sounds like a pastiche of street violence – with the opening lyric “Your butt is mine” showing how far out of touch Jackson had become since 1987.

The other singles on ThrillerThe Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – are all very strong and individually could be the centrepiece of a lesser album. Personally I could do without the opening single, The Girl Is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. It isn’t a terrible song, but it’s easily the weakest of the seven singles, and pales in comparison to their other duet, Say Say Say, from McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace album. Released as a single during Jackson’s two-year promotion of the Thriller album, Say Say Say hit US#1; The Girl Is Mine had stalled at US#2.

I have such happy memories of the Thriller record. In terms of albums, I’d definitely choose it as one of my desert island discs. It has everything – songwriting, production and performance; a truly magical record.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

†  Queen Latifah gag, copyright Seema Lal 2017

Rocks In The Attic #635: Various Artists – ‘Hannah And Her Sisters (O.S.T.)’ (1986)

RITA#635A group of wealthy, intellectual Manhattanites fall in and out of love with other as they discuss their neuroses and insecurities.

So goes the synopsis for a good many Woody Allen films. The trouble is, once you’ve seen Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), all of the others in this realm tend to pale in significance. Hannah And Her Sisters may be endlessly watchable, but it fits into the same bracket as the light-hearted half of Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989) and the very similar-in-tone Husbands And Wives (1992). They’re enjoyable films, relatively inoffensive, yet feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. You could probably intercut scenes from all three films and not tell the difference.

One small flaw of Hannah And Her Sisters comes from Allen’s intent on showing quick, naturalist dialogue between the principle characters. While I like the approach, there are a couple of moments where it doesn’t really work, when a character starts responding to a line of dialogue from another character before they’ve finished saying it. These moments ultimately turn into actors churning through their lines, with little thought given to how a conversation actually works.

Allen’s at his most interesting when he’s not doing the bittersweet New York romantic comedies. The brilliant mock-documentary Zelig (1983) never fails to provoke a wry smile for all of its madcap ideas, and the seemingly throwaway Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is one of his consistently funniest films. Recent clangers like Match Point (2005) show that not everything he touches turns to gold, yet mainstream hits like the time-travelling Midnight In Paris (2011) prove that there’s life in the old dog yet, particularly in commercially appealing genre films. I’m still holding out that he’ll direct a Star Wars film one day.

I’m currently reading John Baxter’s Woody Allen: A Biography, a book I bought – and started – back in the late ‘90s, but abandoned for some reason. It’s always stuck in my craw that I didn’t finish it at the time, but it’s good to finally get back to it, despite it now only covering half of his career.

Hit: I’ve Heard That Song Before – Harry James

Hidden Gem: Back To The Apple – The Count Basie Orchestra

Rocks In The Attic #634: Elton John – ’21 At 33’ (1980)

RITA#634I have a newfound love for Elton John. He’s always been one of those artists I’m militantly apathetic towards. I like the melancholy of Rocket Man. I like the wistfulness of Tiny Dancer from Madman Across The Water, and Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters from Honky Château. I like most – if not all – of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, a double record that gets by on its energy as much as its songwriting. But I wouldn’t call myself a big fan.

I’ve written before about how his great 70’s output is overshadowed by his schlocky ‘80s output, and the fact that he’s become bigger than his music. Recently, I’ve started to re-evaluate him, and it’s come from an unlikely source – my five year old.

Olivia has been singing I’m Still Standing, as it features in a prominent scene in Garth Jennings’ animated film, Sing (2016). If you asked me what I considered to be bad Elton, I’d offer this song. To be honest, I’ve probably never considered the song on its own merits; I just have a deep dislike for the music video that always seemed to be consistently on TV when I was growing up.

The French Riviera portrayed in that film has put me off visiting France for life – it’s a camp wonderland where all the hotel bellboys are bare-chested studs, or body-painted extroverts. Elton, in his red suit and pith helmet, tips one of them with glitter – the forgotten French currency between the Franc and the Euro. After a quick costume change where he dons a straw boater, he then moves down to the beach where he takes a little too much satisfaction from pushing over some human dominoes before attempting to click his fingers, something he can’t do due to his piano-playing sausage fingers.

But when you hear your five year old singing the song by herself, it’s as cute as hell. It’s grown on me to such an extent that I regret giving away the studio album, Too Low For Zero, that it’s taken from.

21 At 33 is Elton’s twenty-first release (counting studio records, live albums, compilations, a soundtrack and an EP), and was released when he was thirty-three years old. It’s actually his fourteenth studio record, released in a commercial trough between 1979’s Victim Of Love and 1981’s The Fox. These were fallow years for Elton, eventually making a big comeback in 1983 with, you guessed it, I’m Still Standing.

Hit: Little Jeannie

Hidden Gem: Chasing The Crown

Rocks In The Attic #633: Ramin Djawadi – ‘Westworld (O.S.T.)’ (2016)

RITA#633It’s a hard life being a soundtrack nut. Last week, I was waiting online to order a copy of the score to Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter [spoiler alert – as the fourth instalment of eleven films, it was far from being the final chapter] from the always excellent Waxwork Records. At 2am, when I found out that the record was going on sale in the USA at the equivalent of 5am NZ-time, I went to sleep for three short hours before waking up to place my order (a double LP in Tommy Jarvis blue & white swirl with green splatter), and then going back to sleep.

Last week I also received Waxwork’s repressing of John Harrison’s 1985 Day Of The Dead score in a lovely blood-smear double LP set; and earlier this morning, the postman brought me a trans-Pacific package from Newbury Comics, featuring John Carpenter and Allan Howarth’s score to Christine (1983), in a blue and gold split red splatter, and this, the soundtrack to HBO’s Westworld TV series, in blood red vinyl.

I have to admit, I was a little cautious when I heard that they were remaking Westworld into a television show. The 1973 sci-fi western is an old favourite of mine from when I would tape films off the TV in the middle of the night, and although a recent rewatch showed that it has dated quite a bit, you still don’t want TV companies from ruining something you hold in high regard.

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But it’s HBO we’re talking about – the company behind The Sopranos and The Wire, arguably the two best TV shows of the 21st century – so the subject matter would surely be in safe hands. Ultimately those hands belong to Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, as creators of the show. Jonathan Nolan has been an integral part of his brother Christopher’s work, co-writing Memento, the Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige and Interstellar, so I was sold on his involvement alone.

Supported by an intriguing all-star cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright), the show was very good, although structurally it felt a little too unbalanced with its numerous narrative twists all taking place in the last couple of episodes. Nolan and Joy have suggested that the show will run to five seasons, so if anything, the groundwork has been laid for some more cerebral television.

My favourite aspect of the show however, was the music. Not only does Ramin Djawadi’s score give us a lovely bit of cello in the ominous title theme, but the real aural treat is the show’s diagetic music. Played on a pianola, the anachronistic soundtrack features honky-tonk piano renditions of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, the Stones’ Paint It Black, the Animals’ arrangement of House Of The Rising Sun, Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, the Cure’s A Forest, and Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees, No Surprises and Exit Music (For A Film).

Hit: Main Title Theme – Westworld

Hidden Gem: Black Hole Sun

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Rocks In The Attic #632: Amen Corner – ‘Greatest Hits’ (1977)

RITA#632Greatest Hits can mean a lot of things. Some collections can cover decades, some much shorter. This disc represents the latter: twelve songs from a band that had a very short life, in that they only recorded across two years – 1968 and 1969.

Opening with the #1 single, (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice, things slip downhill quite suddenly with a cover of the Beatles’ Get Back. It’s not a bad cover – in fact, they re-imagine the song quite well from the original – but the prospect of a cover song as the second song on a Greatest Hits collection doesn’t bode well.

In fact, of the record’s twelve songs, another two are well-known covers – a more straightforward, yet sloppier, version of the Band’s The Weight that outstays its welcome, and a peaky version of the American Breed’s Bend Me, Shape Me – while the album’s final four songs are all live recordings. Surely this is the dictionary definition of scraping the barrel; but good on Immediate Records for trying.

Released in 1977 to benefit from frontman Andy Fairweather Low’s burgeoning solo career (and sideman to the likes of Eric Clapton and George Harrison), the album is a nice little nostalgia trip, and a snapshot of the band’s short life at the headier, and musically more interesting, end of the 1960s.

Hit: (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice

Hidden Gem: Get Back

Rocks In The Attic #631: Cat Stevens – ‘Teaser And The Firecat’ (1971)

RITA#631.jpgI think these pink Island Records centre-labels might just be my favourite. They’re also a mark of quality, appearing in my collection on the discs for Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and Fairport Convention’s Liege And Lief.

Sometimes shovelled into the same brand of benign soft-folk as James Taylor, Cat Stevens has a timeless appeal. Much of the soulful acoustic pop I hear on pop radio these days sounds like it owes a debt to his body of work.

Aside from the well-known Morning Has Broken, which I remember being forced to sing in school when I was growing up, and the album’s lead single Moonshadow, this record really hits it out of the park with it’s opening track, The Wind. Utilised to melancholic introspective perfection in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, it’s a cracker of a song in a cracker of a film.

RITA#631a.jpgI recall a story a few years ago, in the wake of 9/11, of Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam being held at an airport on suspicion of being a terrorist. About as way-off an accusation as you can get, it’s comparable with suspecting the Dalai Lama of a drink-driving hit and run. I’ve always wondered if those airport security guards felt stupid after that.

Hit: Moonshadow

Hidden Gem: The Wind

 

Rocks In The Attic #630: Krzysztof Komeda – ‘Rosemary’s Baby (O.S.T.)’ (1968)

tp0004c_SP_DPGate_CoverThere’s a moment in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby where, during what we’re initially led to believe is a dream sequence, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is raped by an unseen person while the residents of her apartment complex look on, naked. As the camera pans across the small crowd, from left to right, we spot Rosemary’s husband, Guy.

‘She’s awake, she sees,’ he says to their neighbour Minnie.

‘She don’t see,’ Minnie replies.

‘THIS IS NO DREAM! THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!’ shouts Rosemary.

This small exchange is one of the most horrifying moments in American cinema. The prospect of being targeted by a Satanic cult is one thing; the realisation that your husband and protector might be part of the conspiracy is even more shocking.

RITA#630b.jpgIt provokes the same gut-wrenching sense of doom as the final moments of Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982), in which Tom Atkins’ character screams down the phone to the television company, pleading with them to not play the commercial that is going to cause so much carnage.

This is when horror really connects; when it really matters. Hollywood loves jump-scare horror, because it sells tickets, but psychological horror is far more effective. The truly disturbing thing about Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) isn’t the shower scene, it’s the thought that one day you might stay at the seemingly benign Bates Motel; and no matter what precautions you take, that nice motel manager you just met always has a key to your room.

RITA#630aSpielberg’s Jaws (1975) – often derided when labelled as a horror film – is just as shocking as Polanski and Hitchcock’s work. What could be more horrific than the thought, just the lingering idea, that a killer shark might be circling in the gloomy darkness beneath you as you swim? It plants a seed, just like the prospect of Norman Bates making plans behind closed doors.

Released in June 1968, Rosemary’s Baby is an oddity for the horror genre. It’s an urban horror, taking part in a metropolitan area (New York) as opposed to the conventional rural- or suburban-set horror. The lighting of the film also goes against type. This isn’t a film of shadow and darkness; much of the picture takes place during the daytime, and in the scenes that do take place after the sun has set, most shots are well lit. This isn’t the kind of film where evil lurks in the shadows; instead it exists in plain sight where you’d least expect it.

Komeda’s score is the strongest indicator that the film rightfully belongs in the horror genre. The location, the cast and the script might all scream drama – or at most, thriller – but the music is right out of a haunted house. Most unnerving is Mia Farrow’s lullaby over the waltzing opening titles; an ominous foreboding of innocence corrupted.

The film left a sour taste in popular culture. Not only are there the obvious parallels with the murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, a year later at the hands of the satanic Manson cult, but the final shot foreshadows yet another tragedy.

RITA#630c.jpgThe film’s end credits roll over a high crane shot looking down at Rosemary’s apartment complex, the Bramford. In reality, the location is the Dakota complex in Manhattan, which was used for external shots only. Well-known as the residence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1973 onwards, the Dakota’s architecture looks well-suited as the location of a film about devil worship in New York City. As the camera pans down, the final frame of the film shows two people walking into the building’s south entrance, the same archway through which Lennon was walking as he was gunned down by his assassin, Mark Chapman, in December 1980.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Furnishing The Apartment

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