Monthly Archives: August 2018

Rocks In The Attic #705: Abigail Mead – ‘Full Metal Jacket (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

RITA#705I watched Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series The Vietnam War recently. After being schooled by Hollywood on the conflict for so many years, it was refreshing to find out what really happened. And what a fucking mess. No wonder the United States is in such a bad state in the twenty-first century. There’s probably a straight line between the war and Donald Trump if you look hard enough. In fact, scratch that, you probably don’t even need to look.

Burns’ documentary is heavy-going at times, whether it’s watching the protesting monk committing suicide by self-immolation, the execution of a VC soldier live on TV, or ‘napalm girl’ and her family running away from friendly fire, you really need to watch something a bit lighter straight after. Something with Adam Sandler maybe.

I grew up in the 1980s, the decade which saw a glut of Vietnam films made for the MTV generation – Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Good Morning Vietnam, Born On The Fourth Of July, Casualties Of War – so it’s strange that Kubrick would visit such a popular genre. Oddly he didn’t direct a film between 1980’s The Shining and this, his only film which belongs firmly in that decade.

I’m not sure what Kubrick’s intentions are. Plenty of other films around the same time get across the ‘war is hell’ message loud and clear, and so Full Metal Jacket doesn’t feel as individual as the rest of his work. If anything, it’s the least Kubrickian of his post-1960 films.

Recently rewatching the film after seeing the Ken Burns documentary, one glaring take-out for me is that the US might have fared better in Vietnam if they hadn’t put so much time and effort into giving each other catchy nicknames (a trope excellently lampooned in Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump).

Music-wise, the choice of Abigail Mead as composer for the score lends the film an ominous gloom, but it’s the contemporary music that is best remembered. Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ opens the second act of the film, soundtracking an infamous scene with a Vietnamese prostitute bartering with two marines. I remember this playing as a comedic scene – a moment of levity – when the film was first released, but watching now, it’s hard to stomach. A number of racist epithets originated in that scene, and have since become ingrained in popular culture.

RITA#705aOn my way to work, I walk past an Asian fusion restaurant which proudly displays one of these phrases on the pavement outside their building. I like to hope that the owners are just trying to reclaim the saying, but it just feels wrong, and must look terrible to our many Asian residents and tourists.

The one mis-step on the soundtrack is the opening track – Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor), credited to Abigail Mead and Nigel Goulding. A dated jaunt through Lee Ermey’s drill instructor rhymes, put to a hip hop beat, and accompanied by a Fairlight synthesiser, it’s truly as horrific as it sounds.

Hit: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ – Nancy Sinatra

Hidden Gem: Hello Vietnam – Johnny Wright

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Rocks In The Attic #704: Suzanne Vega – ‘Solitude Standing’ (1987)

RITA#704Living in the arse-end of the world, there are a number of things you just have to get used to. New Zealand are unlikely to ever host the World Cup, but on the other hand we’re probably likely to survive nuclear armageddon (if it ever happens). Give and take; rough with the smooth.

The other thing is that we’re quite easy to forget about when musicians and bands are planning their world tour itineraries. Sure, we get a whole heap of bands touring here – we’re an attractive destination to tour during the northern hemisphere’s winter – but there are always a number of artists who overlook our small islands.

One of those guilty of this is New York singer songwriter Suzanne Vega. She played in Auckland a couple of weeks ago, the first time here in a staggering twenty five years. It was almost that long ago since I saw her last at Glastonbury ’99 – one of my top five gigs of all time – and so I wasn’t going to miss seeing her again. Premium tickets put us five rows from the front, in Auckland’s fantastic Bruce Mason Centre.

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Lisa Crawley (Photo credit: Chris Zwaagdyk)

Support came from local singer songwriter Lisa Crawley. Self-accompanied on piano, she was well suited to Vega’s audience with a set-list of quirky love songs (her closing song imagined herself being the wedding singer at her ex’s wedding). My wife liked her so much, she went out to the foyer during the intermission and bought her CD.

Vega started her set Marlene On The Wall, getting her first big hit out of the way. The setlist focused on material from her eponymous debut, follow-up Solitude Standing, and fourth album 99.9F°. Between-song banter was great, with one particularly funny anecdote reflecting on the annoyance of Bono.

Backed by bass player Mike Visceglia, it was the same minimalist set-up (acoustic guitar and electric bass) as I saw at Glastonbury ’99.  There’s a wonderfully ethereal quality to Vega’s voice. It’s so rich, she almost sounds as though she’s harmonising with herself. The jovial Visceglia just looks happy to be along for the ride – he’s been playing with her since 1985.

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(Photo credit: Chris Zwaagdyk)

While I enjoyed the intimate feel of the gig, it’s the second time I’ve seen her play in this format. Hopefully she’ll bring her full band if she makes it back to New Zealand in the next twenty five years.

While the audience was mostly reserved, one incident near the end of the night really made me chuckle. Hearing Vega playing the opening chords of Luca, one middle-aged lady on the end of the first row jumped up, clapped her hands, and started dancing. “This is the one,” she was probably thinking. “Songs about child-abuse are my jam!”

Hit: Luca

Hidden Gem: Ironbound / Fancy Poultry

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Rocks In The Attic #703: Split Enz – ‘True Colours’ (1980)

RITA#703Every country has their local heroes, the ones who are winners back home but never even compete overseas. A third of the WTF With Marc Maron podcast is frequented by American comedians nobody has heard of outside the United States. There are bands in London that don’t translate well outside the capital, let alone across its country’s borders.

It’s the Wakanda Curse. Some artists just struggle to get noticed through the cultural cloaking device that prevents other countries from taking them seriously. Black Panther could have been kicking arse for decades, but nobody noticed. His solo material just wasn’t up to snuff.

New Zealand has its fair share of parochial examples. There are comedians, such as the 7 Days crew, who don’t dare gig internationally. Better to roll out the same tired jokes on TV, week in, week out, than be faced with the fact that, compared to international comics, they’re just not very good. They must really shit themselves when the International Comedy Festival hits the country. But hang on, half of the ‘international’ comedians that come over here are just as unwanted in their native countries, like a really shit student-exchange programme where your homestay parents don’t understand any of your cultural references.

And New Zealand music? The most successful band on a global stage seems to be Crowded House, and even they seem to have been appropriated by the Australians. First pavlova, then our middle-of-the-road rock bands!

The problem is that most Kiwis don’t ever leave our shores, so they don’t know any different. They probably think Dave Dobbyn is a mainstay of British and American singles charts. The Nature’s Best collection is a great retrospective of New Zealand anthems, but nobody’s singing these songs past our passport control point.

And shame on you if you do succeed internationally. Lorde? Aldous Harding? How dare you play overseas festivals! How dare you play Later With Jools Holland. This isn’t good old fashioned Kiwi music. It doesn’t sound anything like that one song by Dragon, or Hello Sailor’s horrific cod-reggae song.

Split Enz are a great band though, and deserve way more worldwide recognition than they got. This, their fifth studio album, is widely regarded as their first commercial success. File next to the Police, Blondie and Talking Heads.

Hit: I Got You

Hidden Gem: The Choral Sea

Rocks In The Attic #702: Alexandre Desplat – ‘Isle Of Dogs (O.S.T.)’ (2018)

RITA#702Okay, I’m calling it: Wes Anderson has run out of ideas.

There was a time when I’d be over the moon about a new Wes Anderson film. For a long time, he was my favourite director. David Fincher films would show me the scary side of humanity, but Wes Anderson films would hold my hand and reassure me that it’s going to be alright.

But then the first damp squib emerged with 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, a film lacking originality beyond its armchair tourism setting. Back in 1974, John Cleese opted out of the fourth and final series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus out of a fear of repeating himself. In the same stale frame of mind, Anderson turned to a new medium to spark his creativity.

2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is the last great Wes Anderson film, and strangely so. It might be the first time he’s adapted the work of others – in this case, Roald Dahl’s children’s book – but the challenge of filming it with stop-motion puppets reinvigorated Anderson. After two decades of computer animation ruling children’s cinema, it was great to see something so home-made, yet so quintessentially from the whimsical mind of Anderson.

What followed were two live-action films that played like parodies of Wes Anderson films: 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom and 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. They looked great, they were complimented by wonderful ensemble casts, but the spark just wasn’t there. It was a long, long way from something like Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

So it was with great trepidation that I approached Isle Of Dogs. As with all of his films, it looks nice, but it’s nothing more than a rehash of everything we’ve seen before.

The music, as always, is wonderful, and while I prefer the more idiosyncratic soundtrack collaborations with Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh earlier in Anderson’s career, these later ones scored by Aexandre Desplat come a close second. This particular soundtrack is worthwhile if only for introducing me to I Won’t Hurt You by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, a beautiful latter day Kinks song in everything but name.

I don’t look forward to Wes Anderson films anymore. In fact, I dread to think what Steely Dan think of his films now?

Hit: Midnight Sleighride  – The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra

Hidden Gem: I Won’t Hurt You – The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band