Monthly Archives: June 2018

Rocks In The Attic #700: ZZ Top – ‘Tres Homres’ (1973)

RITA#700Post number 700. I hope my daughters will read this blog in the future to research my taste in music after I’m dead, but they’re more likely to use it to figure out how much my record collection is worth.

If you’re reading this, girls, here’s a history lesson. The year is 2018, and the world is changing. A businessman, rather than a politician, is in the White House, the new Doctor Who is a lady, and there’s talk of the next James Bond not being a privileged white dude.

RITA#700aAnd most surprising of all, one of the late twentieth century’s most popular pub-facts is no more: drummer Frank Beard is no longer the only member of ZZ Top without a beard.

Studio album number three finds the Texan trio hitting their stride and crossing over into the mainstream. After a low-key, blues-driven debut and a rockier, more commercial follow-up, they really find the perfect mix of grit and soul on Tres Hombres. Its Top Ten success would start to turn to the band into a stadium act in their native country, effectively laying the foundation for their seven-year Worldwide Texas Tour in support of Fandango! and Tejas.

Why do I love this record so much? Because after your Sgt. Peppers, and your Dark Side Of The Moons, and all of the other rock albums that everybody and their cat has heard – Nevermind, Hotel California, Led Zeppelin IV, Back In Black, etc – you’re left with a bunch of great records that are invisible to the casual listener, and this is the jewel of that crown. A truly hidden gem (outside of the United States). Just listen to the stuttering opening groove of Master Of Sparks and try and forget it; that particular earworm has been in my brain for the past twenty years.

Hit: La Grange

Hidden Gem: Master Of Sparks

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Rocks In The Attic #699: Thomas Newman – ‘The Shawshank Redemption (O.S.T.)’ (1994)

RITA#699“You looking for something, mate?”

“Er, yeah, can you sort me out with season 5 of House Of Cards?”

“Sure, boss, you want some season 9 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with that? I’ve just got it from my man at the docks – it’s pretty good. Pretty, pretty, good.”

*

This is a fairly accurate representation of what I’ve had to do to watch quality television whilst living in the cultural backwater of New Zealand in the last ten years. Not only is the country infatuated with one of the dullest sports ever invented, the populace also seems to be content with some of the most mediocre television created. I expect Kazakhstani TV to be more exciting than it is here.

From the endless reality shows and soap operas, to the fact that TVNZ once unwittingly transmitted Thunderball at prime-time on a Saturday night just seven days after it transmitted its 1983 remake, Never Say Never Again­, I imagine the programming schedules are drawn up by work-experience kids, or –worse still – programmers who have never left these shores and aren’t aware of how good other countries can be.

We joined the rest of the planet a few weeks ago, and finally got Netflix. After ten years in the wilderness, I’ve finally returned to the act of channel-surfing (although in a slightly different way to broadcast television).

RITA#699bI’ve been waiting months to see the new Psycho documentary 78/52 – the title referring to the number of camera set-ups and edits in Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene. As I’m pretty sure the documentary is still doing the rounds on the festival circuit, I thought I’d have to contact my dealer hanging out behind the local library. Forget it, it’s on Netflix!

Looking to score the stand-up special, Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life? Forget it, it’s on Netflix!

Looking forward to the second season of GLOW? Forget it, it’s on Netflix!

My dealer’s going to go out of business, and might have to resort to supplying the local kindergarten kids with pirated episodes of Peppa Pig.

One of the unexpected advantages of Netflix has been the joy of stumbling upon something unexpected. I got such a great grounding in film from watching films and documentaries in the middle of the night on the BBC or Channel 4, from curated retrospectives of particular directors, to seminal cult films and forgotten classics. I let the programmers shape my tastes.

A recent Netflix find was one of my favourites to watch in the early hours as a teenager – Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz, his fifth and final collaboration with Clint Eastwood, from 1979.

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It’s still a great film, from Eastwood’s underplayed, optimistic hero, to Patrick MacGoohan’s calculating prison warden, and having not seen it for around twenty-five years, I really enjoyed it.

It is, however, not a patch on The Shawshank Redemption. Before the genre-bending, narrative revolution of 1990’s cinema, prison films were almost a lost art, a masculine relic of bygone times. Escape From Alcatraz, Papillon, and Midnight Express were the genre’s three high watermarks. What could a prison film do that we haven’t seen before?

Enter Frank Darabont. Originally a horror screenwriter (The Fly II, The Blob, A Nightmare On Elm Street III: Dream Warriors), his 1983 short film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Woman In The Room, led to an ongoing and successful collaboration with the writer. After giving us the greatest prison film of the decade, he followed it up with The Green Mile, the second-best of the genre.

Originally a short story titled Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption from King’s 1982 Different Seasons collection – which also spawned 1986’s Stand By Me and 1998’s Apt Pupil – the premise is simple: an innocent man gets imprisoned for his wife’s murder, and escapes from the prison against all odds.

In fact, it’s a little too simple, isn’t it? But when you consider that this was made in a post Die Hard world, the film’s lack of action is its greatest gamble. If 1996’s The Rock was the prison film made for hopped-up ’90s teen audiences; Shawshank was directed at their nostalgia-hungry parents.

From Morgan Freeman’s career-defining voice-over, to Tim Robbins’ downbeat protagonist, and an ensemble cast of future Darabont regulars, it’s a joy to watch, easily earning its seven Oscar nominations. Ultimately the film went home from the Academy Awards empty-handed, losing against Forrest Gump for its three big nominations – Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The glue that holds Shawshank together is its ethereal score by Thomas Newman, who by this time was well on his way to his 1999 career peak with Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Newman’s score fits the 1940s/1950s setting effortlessly, and is enhanced by period songs from the (always fantastic) Ink Spots and Hank Williams.

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A hidden (behind a poster) gem of my collection, this double LP set is on ‘suds on the roof’ yellow vinyl, and includes a replica of Andy’s ‘blank’ postcard to Red.

Hit: Shawshank Prison (Stoic Theme)

Hidden Gem: Elmo Blatch

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Rocks In The Attic #698: Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits’ (1972)

RITA#698Put something happy on next, my kids said. I can’t blame them. Making them listen to Jerry Goldmsith’s Alien score first thing on a sunny Saturday morning doesn’t exactly scream golden childhood memory.

Who doesn’t like Simon & Garfunkel? Surely it’s impossible to like their brand of impossibly cheerful folk-pop. They should pipe this album into the waiting rooms of psychiatrists and mental institutions. I predict the world suicide rate would drop off a cliff overnight.

RITA#698aSpeaking of Simon & Garfunkel, I’ve finally got around to finishing the excellent BBC comedy Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook. Two of my favourite characters are the antagonists played by the always excellent Simon Farnaby and the wonderfully underplayed Paul Casar. The recurring joke that the pair look like a poor man’s Simon & Garfunkel is one of my favourite things in the show, and it’s a shame – although completely understandable – that Crook won’t be bringing it back for a fourth series.

Hit: Mrs. Robinson

Hidden Gem: America

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Rocks In The Attic #697: Jerry Goldsmith – ‘Alien (O.S.T.)’ (1979)

RITA#697Is there a more immersive experience than a video game? Over the last couple of weekends I’ve been playing Alien: Isolation on the PS4, and generally shitting myself with fear as a result.

Set fifteen years after the events in the 1979 film – itself based in 2122 – Alien: Isolation follows Ellen Ripley’s daughter as she visits a spaceship to find out what happened to her mother. The game is designed to look like the 1979 film, with the events unfolding on the same class of mining ship as the Nostromo.

I started off playing the game in the middle of the night, wearing my gaming headphones, but this proved too scary – wandering around a dark spaceship full of blinking lights and music akin to Jerry Goldmsith’s original score. Subsequent plays have been made without headphones, and with my trusty Great Dane, Abbey, by my side.

If there’s one thing I love the most about the 1979 film, it’s the production design by concept artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss. The spaceship looks so grungy and atmospheric, and so far removed from the clean aesthetic of the Star Trek universe. H.R. Giger’s design of the alien itself is one thing, but the ship almost feels like another living and breathing character.

Duncan Jones’ Moon got close to a similar look, and other sci-fi films have tread a similar path since, but Alien feels like the first mainstream film to do this. Comparisons can be drawn with the production design of John Carpenter’s 1974 Dark Star – itself starring future Alien creator/writer Dan O’Bannon.

RITA#697aJerry Goldsmith’s score, presented here on acid-blood green vinyl, courtesy of Mondo Records, is a wonderfully creepy soundtrack. Although the score ends up sounding more like a traditional horror soundtrack towards the end – tense strings and booming brass, complimented by high-register plucked violins – it starts off a different beast altogether. Main Title, Hyper Sleep and the rest of the music throughout the first act just sounds otherworldly. Not particularly scary, just lonely and isolated; grim and despondent.

I have a very clear memory of being faced with my first images from the Alien film. I couldn’t have been older than a toddler, and I remember bring walked into a living room to say goodnight to people, and the film was playing on the television. For whatever reason, the film wasn’t turned off, probably because it looked like quite a benign, harmless scene – and I was probably only in the room for less than a minute. But I distinctly remember looking at the screen as the face-hugger emerged from the egg and launched itself at John Hurt’s face. Obviously at that age – three or four – I didn’t know what it was. For some reason I thought it was rope – perhaps the uncoiling of the face-hugger looked like a length of rope – and I presume the film was swiftly turned off and I was rushed to bed.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Hyper Sleep

Rocks In The Attic #696: Pink Floyd – ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (1967)

RITA#696Is there a more important year in music than 1967? It seems to exist as a pivot between then and now, the old and new, the past and the future. Thanks to that year’s rebooted technicolour of the Beatles, and similarly colourful debuts by (the) Cream and (the) Pink Floyd, the floodgates were opened and the rules were rewritten.

Pink Floyd must have been some whacky sight to behold around this time. Who would have thought that such a pretentious bunch of architecture and art students playing freak-out music in front of a trippy light show would become one of the world’s biggest stadium rock bands? At this point, it’s still very much Syd Barrett’s band – his off-kilter rhymes and childlike lyrics drive the record along, with very little of the form and function that would characterise the band after Roger Waters took control.

Compared to the comparatively conventional beat music that had peppered the charts over the previous five years, the primitive and experimental feel to Floyd’s early music is almost proto-punk, a pre-echo of that other seminal year in music a decade later.

RITA#696aHearing a Pink Floyd song on the soundtrack to a film is thankfully a rare thing, but I appreciated the appearance of the brilliant Interstellar Overdrive on the otherwise dull Doctor Strange a couple of years ago. The outlandish asking price for last year’s Record Store Day 12” live version of the song was too much for me, but for this year’s Record Store Day I hunted down this mono reissue of the album, in a lovely redesigned outer sleeve by Aubrey Powell at Hipgnosis.

Far out, man.

Hit: Astronomy Domine

Hidden Gem: Lucifer Sam

Rocks In The Attic #695: Joe Cocker – ‘Cocker Happy’ (1971)

RITA#695Amongst its many highlights, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock film contains a groundbreaking performance by Joe Cocker and the Grease Band. Cocker almost looks possessed as he tears through his version of the Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends. For a pained eight minutes, he looks like he’s about to die singing the song.

The studio recording of Cocker’s most famous Beatles cover, with more than a little help from session guitarist Jimmy Page, appears on this compilation, Cocker Happy. Released only in Spain, Australia and New Zealand, it features a number of singles and album tracks recorded between 1968 and 1970.

Watching that Woodstock performance, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would provide the springboard for a stellar career. But his subsequent solo career failed to match the intensity of these early hits. Twenty-two studio albums later, and he’s really most famous for the duet with Jennifer Warnes which soundtracked a dress-whites besuited Richard Gere in An Officer And A Gentleman.

He’s not the only English soul singer with such a lob-sided career. Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood and, to an extent, Van Morrison also failed to follow through on their early promises and went in unexpected directions. In a parallel universe, maybe Cocker could have been the singer in Led Zeppelin, and maybe Rod Stewart could have held on to Ron Wood and kept the Faces together.

Hit: With A Little Help From My Friends

Hidden Gem: Delta Lady

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Rocks In The Attic #694: Lenny Kravitz – ‘Let Love Rule’ (1989)

RITA#694I heard a great joke involving scarf-botherer Lenny Kravitz the other day. He wasn’t the butt of the joke, but he played an integral part in it.

While listening to a podcast about James Bond, the presenters and their guest, comedian Dana Gould, were discussing the great credit sequences of the Bond films, created by Maurice Binder.

In one particularly risqué shot during the credits of The Spy Who Loved Me, Gould pointed out: ‘that chick’s bush is so big, it looks like Lenny Kravitz is tying her shoelaces’.

Hahahahahahaha!

Hit: Let Love Rule

Hidden Gem: Freedom Train

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