Monthly Archives: June 2020

Rocks In The Attic #869: Diana Ross – ‘Diana – The CHIC Organization Ltd. Mix’ (1980)

RITA#869I might have danced to Diana Ross’ Upside Down at many a wedding in the 1980s, unaware that forty years later I would come back to it as a lost funk gem. It’s been my jam of the year, all through lockdown, ever since I discovered that there was a mix that leaned more into Nile Rodgers’ guitar and Bernard Edwards’ bass.

Released in 1980, Diana was the tenth solo studio album by Ross, and the first big name act produced by the Chic Organization Ltd., effectively an umbrella term to encompass Rodgers and Edwards’ production skills. By this point they had produced the first three Chic records, Chic vocalist Norma Jean Wright’s self-titled solo debut, and third studio album by Sister Sledge, We Are Family, which Rodgers regards as the production duo’s greatest achievement.

RITA#869aDiana Ross, aware of Rodgers’ work through the disco scene at legendary New York nightclub Studio 54, approached him to develop a fresh new sound for her next project. The result is a buoyant thirty-five minutes of disco pop, the perfect material to introduce her to a younger, hipper audience.

The recording of the album, came six months after the day disco died at the Disco Demolition Night at a Chicago baseball stadium. Local radio DJs convinced disgruntled rock fans to bring disco records to the game to be destroyed in a controlled explosion. The ensuing riot led to fires inside the ground, with many arrests made, and a field so damaged by the explosion the home side had to forfeit the game.

Frankie Crocker, an influential New York City DJ, warned Ross about releasing an album that was steeped so heavily in disco. She then enlisted Motown engineer Russ Terrana, the man behind her Supremes hits and subsequent solo work, to remix the album at the eleventh hour. Terrana brought up her vocals in the mix, sped up the tempos and removed any longer instrumental sections, effectively de-Chic-ing the album. Rodgers and Edwards unsuccessfully sued Motown, but by that time the horse had bolted and the album was out in store, reaching #5 on the Billboard album chart and providing Ross with her fifth #1 single in Upside Down.

2017’s Record Store Day finally saw the release of the original Chic mix of the album, on lovely pink double vinyl. It sounds more like a Chic record, and stands alongside the second Chic record and We Are Family as perhaps the duo’s top three albums. There’s a fantastic live version of Upside Down available on YouTube, in which she brings Michael Jackson to sing and dance during the end of the song. The performance perfect encapsulates the joy and exuberance captured on the record, and in some way, represents the passing of the flame between the two Motown artists.

Hit: Upside Down

Hidden Gem: My Old Piano

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Rocks In The Attic #868: James Brown – ‘Motherlode’ (1988)

RITA#868There are two key James Brown compilations from the mid to late 1980s that seemed to flesh out his newfound status as the hardest working sample in showbusiness.

First off there was 1986’s In The Jungle Groove, an essential purchase for any budding DJ, if only for its Bonus Beat Reprise remix of Funky Drummer – almost three minutes of Clyde Stubblefield’s drum-break that served as the heartbeat of so much seminal hip hop.

Two years later, and surely onto a good thing, Polydor released Motherlode into the wild, another double LP of unreleased oddities and remixes. Like In The Jungle Groove, it focuses on the deep funk of James Brown in the 1970s – more Minister Of New New Super Heavy Funk than any of his prior personas. The standout track here is the full 7 minutes and 27 seconds of I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Want To Dance), previously only available in two-parts split over the November 1972 single.

I’ve always resisted the idea of picking up a second-hand copy of this record. Second-hand James Brown records tend to vary from bad to worse to absolutely trashed, usually from being DJ’d with, and I thought that a shiny new reissue was well out of reach at around $65. It’s essential, but not that essential, particularly as I know it like the back of my hand. But I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the recent 2019 reissue for only $20 at JB Hi-Fi. I’ll support my local record store every which way I can – and I do – but even I can’t remain so principled when one of the chain stores has this great a deal.

Hit: I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Want To Dance)

Hidden Gem: Funk Bomb (Instrumental)

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Rocks In The Attic #867: Various Artists – ‘Action Jackson (O.S.T.)’ (1988)

RITA#867Action Jackson: the 1988 film that reunites Dillon, Mac and Billy from Predator. But it doesn’t stop there. It’s a veritable who’s who of character actors from the Joel Silver stable. From Die Hard, released 5 months later, we have the TV presenter (also the psychologist from Lethal Weapon), Agent Johnson, Argyle the limo-driver, Karl the terrorist, the faux-lobby guard and the candy-bar hungry Chinese terrorist. And of course the Michael Kamen score, ignoring Herbie Hancock’s contributions, puts us firmly in mind of both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. Joel Silver’s casting director likes to keep it close, but with all this talent, Action Jackson is still a steaming pile of turkey shit.

RITA#867aThe tone of the film is the worst thing about it. It’s an action-comedy with too much comedy, and not the good kind. I guess Comedy Jackson didn’t sound as good as a title. The script is terrible too. It wants to be a dark, edgy, dangerous like Joel Silver’s recent successes, but it just limps along, going from very light to a shade of dark it never earns.

The Herbie Hancock half of the score could be great, but there isn’t enough of it. The gentler Kamen stuff – bluesy sax and haunting orchestral stabs – is great, but we’ve heard it all before. The soundtrack album itself, comprised of black artists to appeal to a black audience, isn’t bad though. It’s the usual fluffy ‘80s pop soundtrack, with a fair bit of filler and a couple of gems. He Turned Me Out, by the Pointer Sisters, is an absolutely boss tune and easily the best song on the album. More than anything, it’s a blessing the film came out in 1988 and avoided the short-lived New Jack Swing phenomenon that cursed the Ghostbusters II soundtrack a year later.

Hit: He Turned Me Out – The Pointer Sisters

Hidden Gem: Building Up ‘Action Jackson’ – Herbie Hancock

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Rocks In The Attic #866: Tangerine Dream – ‘Sorcerer (O.S.T.)’ (1977)

RITA#866It’s a jungle-adventure film, Wikipedia says. All I know is that it took me a very long time to convince my horror-allergic wife to sit down and watch it.
‘Is it scary?’ she asks, quite reasonably.
‘No, it’s not a horror film,’ I say.
‘So, why’s it called Sorcerer then?’

Yes, William Friedkin, why is it called Sorcerer? If you asked him, you’d probably get any of a half-dozen answers depending on how literary he was feeling that day. The truth is fairly innocuous: one of the trucks has the word ‘sorcier’ (the French for ‘sorcerer’) painted on its bonnet; supposedly a reference to the Miles Davis album Sorcerer. It’s a terrible title for the film; even Friedkin has admitted it’s ‘an intentional but ill-advised reference to The Exorcist,’ made worse by the glimpse of that film’s Pazuzu demon over the opening credits. Friedkin’s earlier film grossed $66 million on its initial U.S. theatrical run, off a $12 million budget, so it ultimately seems to be a cynical attempt at disguising a ‘jungle-adventure’ film as something else.

RITA#866aThe other excuse that is often brought out in defence of the film is that nobody went to see it because it was released so close to Star Wars. There may be some truth in this, but many films bombed on the big screen before finding an audience on home-video, Blade Runner being the best example. Sorcerer didn’t even manage to do that.

The problem is really in the construction of the film. First, we open on an extended prologue; four vignettes to show how each of the four men ended up in Central America. They’re all running away from something: Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a Mexican assassin on the run after a kill, Kassem (Amidou) is an Arab terrorist on the run after a bombing, Serrano (Bruno Cremer) is a French investment banker accused of fraud, and Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is an Irish gangster who accidentally kills the brother of a Mafioso in a bungled robbery.

While there’s no signposting that these vignettes are connected, there’s no signposting that they’re not connected either. If Star Wars appealed to the basest measures of the American cinema-going audience in 1977 – heroism, nostalgia, and popcorn – then Friedkin’s film does the exact opposite. The prologue takes 25 minutes before we land in Central America, that’s 25 minutes that (a) don’t make sense, and (b) occur mostly without dialogue or with subtitles. Is it any wonder that people were put off?

The following 25 minutes are similarly aimless, as the four men slowly ebb away their days in the village of Porvenir, looking for a way out. We finally see the oil-derrick explosion and the introduction of the sticks of dynamite at the 50-minute mark, and all of a sudden the film gears up for its second hour. If it was made today, the prologue would probably be told through flashbacks. It just doesn’t work linearly, although it fares much better upon repeat viewings.

RITA#866bThis is where the magic starts though. From the moment the men start fixing the trucks that will transport the unstable nitro-glycerine – a sequence that seems to have had a major impact on TV series The A-Team – through to the conclusion of their journey, the extended third act of the film might just be the greatest hour of 1970s filmmaking. It’s clearly influenced by Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which also deals with the subject of transporting something bloody annoying through a jungle.

I’m not sure what Friedkin was up to, but one of the elements that stands out even more than the performances of the four principle actors, is the documentary feel of it all. It feels hyper-realistic, like they really did drive those two bastard trucks through a jungle and over the wonkiest bridge every committed to celluloid. The first explosion, from the bomb planted by Kassem at the start of his vignette, is even mixed with footage of the aftermath of a real bombing that occurred close to production. The film’s many explosions – Kassem’s bomb, the oil derrick, the tree trunk, and finally one of the trucks – are just massive in every way. It looks like people actually get injured in that first bombing explosion – in fact, the stuntman who triggered the explosion can be seen far too close to the blast and was injured as a result.

The last piece of the jigsaw is the soundtrack by German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream, the start of a run of film scores they would do through the rest of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. It’s a great score, and while you could say it just doesn’t fit the film, I think it adds to the elemental feel of the picture as a whole. The main theme that kicks in as Scanlon’s friend leads the mafia to Porvenir, and into the end credits, is so confronting and terrifying it’s practically a horror theme in itself, leading us back full-circle, where we started, to The Exorcist.

Hit: Betrayal (Sorcerer Theme)

Hidden Gem: Search

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Rocks In The Attic #865: Harry Manfredini – ‘Friday The 13th Part IV – The Final Chapter (O.S.T.)’ (1984)

RITA#864When I was just six years old, my brother tried to scare me by showing me the box-cover of this film at the video shop. The poster of the film depicts Jason’s mask, lying in a pool of blood, with a knife sticking out one of the eye-holes. To my six-year old mind, I thought it was a picture of a potato. That’s not scary at all. What’s scary about potatoes? I’ve since heard similar stories by people who saw the poster when they were a similar age, and they thought it was a potato too. You say hockey-mask, I say potato, let’s call the whole thing off.
Is there any better indicator that you’re watching an ‘80s film than Corey Feldman being in the cast? Not only do we get Feldman in the same year he appeared in Gremlins, before he broke through with The Goonies in 1985 and Stand By Me in 1986, but Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter also gives us a pre-Back To The Future Crispin Glover. Outside of Kevin Bacon’s appearance in the first film, Feldman and Glover’s presence make The Final Chapter the most star-packed episode in the series.

RITA#864aSpoiler alert: it wasn’t the final chapter at all. In fact, Part IV, as we’ll refer to it, was far from being the final chapter. It’s very much mid-period Jason. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr. – the son of Paramount CEO Frank Mancuso Sr. – titled it as such as he was embarrassed at being linked to the franchise. Regardless of how much money the series was raking in, he felt like killing off Jason would end the films and would allow him to concentrate on more respectable projects. We don’t even get roman numerals in the film’s title this time, although the strap-line would have served as a clever marketing move – “Gee, we had better go and see this one! It’s the last one they’re going to make!”

As is now par for the course by this point in the series, we open on a recap of parts I, II and III – “Previously…on Friday The 13th”. Framed around the fireside chat from Part II, we hear Paul from that film narrate the legend of Jason Voorhees, while we see a montage of kills from the three films so far.

Instead of the film’s block title advancing towards the camera, we now see the mask do the same trick. All of a sudden, the mask is now the icon of the series, and would remain so forever. Jason would wear the mask permanently from this moment on.

The opening scenes, set in a middle-of-the-night hospital where they have taken the corpses from the end of Part III, is very reminiscent of Halloween II, a film that had only been released two years earlier. The subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Jason’s breath as the doctor loads him into the freezer is a wonderful piece of filmmaking. From this detail, you already know you’re in far safer hands than Steve Miner’s tired direction of Part III. Joesph Zito directs Part IV, and he makes it one of the stronger films in the franchise alongside Part II.

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We’re introduced to the 12-year old Corey Feldman, who lives with his older sister and their mother, and we have a bunch of young kids moving into the house next door (I wonder what’s going to happen here!). Crispin Glover does some crazy dancing, ahead of his crazy dancing at the ‘Enchantment Under The Sea’ Dance in Back To The Future.

It’s in this film where we glimpse the Pamela Voorhees ‘1979’ gravestone that knocked the franchise off into its wonky timeframe. This film was released in 1984, but by now we’ve caught up after Part II thrust us five years into the future. Part III took place the day after Part II, and we stay in the same timeframe, with Part IV taking place the day after Part III. Phew, keep up people…

The music, again by Harry Manfredini, is, of course, as excellent as always. Part IV is a strong, well-made film; perhaps as strong, if not stronger, than Part II. Now if only we could sidestep Part V

Hit: What Boy, Ma’am? / Main Titles

Hidden Gem: Helicopter

Body Count: 14

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Rocks In The Attic #864: Nicholas Britell – ‘Succession: Season 1 (O.S.T.)’ (2018)

RITA#863It’s definitely an interesting proposition: Jesse Armstrong, the creator of UK comedies Peep Show and Fresh Meat, and co-writer of In The Loop and Four Lions, develops a show for HBO in America about a media mogul and his family of screw-ups.

The first episode wasn’t promising; too many characters, and not enough exposition. Logan Roy (Brian Cox), patriarch of the family and founder of the media conglomerate Waystar Royco, is approaching his 80th birthday. His family convenes to celebrate in New York, among them Kendall the second of three sons, who believes he is about to inherit his father’s empire. Logan stuns the family by telling them he won’t be retiring, and shortly after, suffers a stroke.

The second episode, as the family struggles with the fallout, is where the genius of the show starts to come into its own. Slowly, but surely, we’re introduced to each member of the family: eldest son and detached hipster Connor (Alan Ruck), youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin) the immature baby of the family, and the power-hungry couple of daughter Shiobhan (Sarah Snook) and her partner Tom (Matthew Macfadyen).

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But it is the ingénue cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) who acts as our key into the show. The grandson of Logan’s estranged brother Ewan (James Cromwell), Greg has no skills and no prospects when we find him operating in a grass-roots role in one the Waystar Royco amusement parks. Buoyed on by his mother, he attempts to inveigle himself into the Roy family through his tenuous relation to them. It’s Greg’s incompetence and lack of worldliness that provides much of the humour in the first couple of episodes, before you start to learn that each of Logan’s heirs are just as hopeless.

The music for the show is provided by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, Vice, If Beale Street Could Talk), who is fast becoming one of my favourite composers. The main theme music for the show – a beautiful piano motif underscored by a hip hop beat – is an absolute banger. It’s easily one of the greatest TV themes of the 21st century, with a melody that harks back to classic TV themes of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The rest of the soundtrack plays with variations of the main theme – a kind of street-smart chamber music – which perfectly encapsulates the corruption and incompetence that lies at the heart of Armstrong’s take on society’s 1%.

Hit: Succession (Main Title Theme)

Hidden Gem: Strings + 808 + Beat

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Rocks In The Attic #863: The Presidents Of The United States Of America – ‘The Presidents Of The United States Of America’ (1995)

RITA#863Last Friday, I returned to the office for the first time in eleven weeks. There was only one record waiting for me in the mailroom, but it was a good one.

Six months or so ago, I heard about a Kickstarter project by the grunge band The Presidents Of The United States Of America, who were reissuing their 1995 self-titled debut. I didn’t even need to think about it; just take my money! It was so good to finally get it in my hands, signed by the band.

I don’t think I ever owned the album on CD in the ‘90s. I definitely bought the Lump single, which I’ve always preferred to Peaches, and I remember playing it as the second song in my set (after Weezer’s Hash Pipe) on a radio show I did for an independent station put together by friends in Oldham in the late ‘90s. They’re a majorly quirky band – not everybody’s taste, I’m sure – but I’ve always marvelled at how they managed to craft such catchy songs on such rudimentary instruments – a three-string guitbass and a two-string bassitar (and some no-string drums, as the liner notes proudly state).

Unfortunately, I never saw the band live back in the day, and this is one of my sources of eternal regret. I almost saw them support the Foo Fighters on their first tour in Manchester, touring that debut Foo Fighters album – one of my favourite albums of the ‘90s – but I had an exam the following morning, so I wisely/stupidly chose education over what would have been an awesome gig. Decisions, decisions…

Hit: Peaches

Hidden Gem: Body

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Rocks In The Attic #862: Alice Cooper – ‘Trash’ (1989)

RITA#862An important album for me in my teens, Trash is the eleventh solo studio album by Alice Cooper. I don’t think I ever owned a copy of this at the time, except perhaps a copy taped from my old friend Vini, but it’s nice to finally own it. It was a nice surprise to receive it in the mail – the 2017 Music On Vinyl reissue – to discover that it is on transparent red vinyl, limited to 1,500 copies.

A comeback album of sorts, it represents a late-career resurgence (now considered a mid-career resurgence) for Cooper. Hit single and album opener Poison was his first Top 10 hit since 1977, and finally he had a solid album to back it up with – the first since his early days as a solo artist following the break-up of the Alice Cooper band.

What was important to me as a skinny, long-haired teenager was the Aerosmith connection. Not only is Trash produced by Desmond Child, notorious song-doctor to Aerosmith’s late-‘80s radio-friendly hits, but the timing of the album seems to run in parallel with the Boston band. After an initial run through the ‘70s, both Aerosmith and Alice Cooper returned with a more commercial sound in the late ‘80s, with Trash hitting record stores only a couple of months before Aerosmith’s Pump.

RITA#862aThe final connection to Aerosmith comes via the guest appearances across Trash. Steven Tyler provides vocals on Only My Heart Talkin’, Joe Perry plays guitar and takes a solo on House Of Fire, and the title song features contributions by Tom Hamilton on bass and Joey Kramer on drums. I’ve never been able to figure out why Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford doesn’t appear on the album, but I presume it’s something fairly innocent like he was on holiday at the time, or learning some scales.

It’s an album that’s chock-full of guest appearances: Jon Bon Jovi, Kip Winger, Richie Sambora and Steve Lukather all turn up at one point or another. It’s not as though the album is in desperate need of the contributions either. Alice’s band are cooking even without them, and no song is more true of this than Poison, arguably one of the greatest rock songs of the 1980s.

I remember an old school friend – Jamie Hardman, the man I went to my first Aerosmith concert with – was always a massive fan of Alice Cooper. I tried to share his enthusiasm when Alice released his 1991 follow-up, Hey Stoopid, but it all sounded a little silly to me and I wasn’t listening to rock music yet. Trash sounded much better when I eventually heard it a few years later, although it admittedly sounds quite dated now. It is what it is though; just big, dumb fun.

Hit: Poison

Hidden Gem: Trash

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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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