Category Archives: 1987

Rocks In The Attic #598: Elvis Presley – ‘The All Time Greatest Hits’ (1987)

RITA#598I recently watched Elvis & Nixon, a 2016 film directed by Liza Johnson. All I knew about the film was that it starred the fantastic Michael Shannon as the Big ‘E’, and the equally fantastic Kevin Spacey as the big crook in the Oval Office. I didn’t know whether it was a drama, a comedy, a satirical warning or a Bollywood musical; all I knew was that it sounded as intriguing as the real-life meeting it was based on.

A quick blast through the opening credits, soundtracked by Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’, lets you know what you’re in for – a light-hearted, absurdist, partly fictionalised tale of Elvis and Nixon’s meeting. The film is executive produced by Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ long-time confidant and member of the Memphis Mafia who accompanied him to the White House, so the film clearly has one film clearly stuck in reality. The other foot is waving everywhere, guided by a script by husband and (now ex-)wife team Joey & Hanala Sagal, and where-is-he-now actor Cary Elwes.

RITA#598aThe left-field choice of Michael Shannon to portray Presley is a strange one. Ever since I first saw Shannon in 2007’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and the following year’s Revolutionary Road – two small but extremely effective performances – it’s been clear that he’s been one to watch. One of my favourite actors ever since, he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. 2011’s Take Shelter and 2016’s Midnight Special are two particular stand-out performances, but his ominous presence shines through in everything he’s been in.

He plays Presley as a caricature of course – it is the 1970’s Vegas-era version of Elvis we’re talking about, after all – but he also shows a quieter, melancholic side of Presley. This isn’t hard to imagine, an unfortunate side-effect of the isolation from being the biggest star in the world.

RITA#598cIn December 1970, Presley turned up in Washington DC to ask Nixon to swear him in as an undercover agent for the Bureau Of Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs. The result, he hoped, would be that he’d be given a badge to add to his growing collection of law-enforcement badges. Nixon acquiesced, in exchange for a photo with Presley and an autograph for his daughter.

It was odd to see Spacey sat in the Oval Office given that I’d just binge-watched him sitting behind the same desk in the fifth season of House Of Cards. His portrayal as Nixon feels spot-on, but then Spacey has always been a great mimic. The cast is rounded out by Colin Hanks, Alex Pettyfer and an underused Johnny Knoxville, and the film is wrapped up with a great late-‘60s soul and R&B soundtrack.

This double-disc compilation, The All Time Greatest Hits, features 45 Presley 45s – an astounding body of work.

Hit: Hound Dog

Hidden Gem: Way Down

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Rocks In The Attic #588: Various Artist – ‘The Wrestling Album / Piledriver: The Wrestling Album 2’ (1985 / 1987)

RITA#588I recently saw The True Story Of Wrestlemania, a 2011 documentary produced by the WWF (I refuse to refer to the organisation by any other initials). I really enjoyed it, not only to see the years I knew like the back of my hand (Wrestlemanias I through VII), but also for the years after that I’d missed, after I’d…er…grown up.

I have a real soft spot for that classic era of WWF. I don’t regret missing the so-called ‘Attitude’ era of the late ‘90s where everybody seemed to wear black, guzzle beer and walk to the ring to awful music from the likes of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, but that first six or seven years was a technicolour blast of entertainment I really loved at the time.

RITA#588bSo it wasn’t a hard decision to pick up this two-LP set a few years ago on Record Store Day. The original 1985 record is presented in clear red vinyl, while the 1987 follow-up is presented in clear yellow vinyl. But it’s not the first time that I’ve owned The Wrestling Album.

In 1990, a friend introduced me to WWF, and from Wrestlemania VI onwards, I was hooked for a solid two years or so. I was such an addict, I would spend all my pocket money and paper-round money on anything wrestling-related, which to begin with was very sparse. Sky TV had the rights to transmit WWF in the UK, and as I was the first person that we knew to get Sky, I became the supply guy, taping shows and sharing them with friends at school.

RITA#588cIt took the rest of the UK a little while to catch on, but eventually other things started filtering through. I still remember the day when my local newsagent started stocking the official WWF magazine – the July 1990 edition featuring Macho King Randy Savage. A short while later, Toys R Us started stocking the official line of WWF figures, including the to-scale wrestling ring. This is where my obsessive collecting streak started – I had to have it all, anything I could find with that official silver and gold logo.

I wasn’t waiting for UK shops to catch on to the WWF buzz either. By this time, I had already joined the WWF Fan Club in America and was ordering merchandise directly from them. T-shirts, posters,  videos, whatever. And that’s where I first came into contact with The Wrestling Album.

The thought of a record performed by the superstars of the WWF was too much to bear, so I saved up and sent off for it alongside a bunch of other stuff. And this was in the pre-internet days when ordering anything from the USA would take at least six weeks to arrive. I still remember my Dad arriving home from work with a box the size of a child’s coffin, full of official WWF merch.

One thing was wrong though. The album I’d ordered as a record had turned up in a different format. It was still packaged in the 12” LP cover, but instead of a shiny black disc inside it had a white plastic cassette tape stuck to the front. I remember being disappointed about this, but what the hell (my 38 year old self secretly rues this switcheroo as I’d now kill for an original pressing).

As an album, it’s pretty forgetful except for the inclusion of Rick Derringer’s Real American, which from this point forward would become Hulk Hogan’s theme tune (his cartoon show theme tune by the WWF All-Stars is also included on the record). Rick Derringer deserves a lot of credit, not only for Real American – a bloody brilliant song – but for producing much of the record, and making it sound reasonably good. I’d hate to think what it would have sounded like, without his input.

The rest of the record is an embarrassing karaoke sing-through of covers and originals by wrestlers from the WWF rosta at the time of recording. My eleven-year old self didn’t bother listening to the album too much, preferring instead to listen to the free tapes that would be sent to me as a member of the fan club. These tapes featured the entrance music to the current members of the WWF at the time and were far more interesting – the futuristic synth drone of Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, the guttural growl of The Legion Of Doom, the Communication Breakdown borrowing theme of the Ultimate Warrior.

RITA#588aI wasn’t aware that there was a second edition of The Wrestling Album – subtitled Piledriver – until it was released retrospectively in this RSD edition. That record leans more towards the entrance music for the wrestlers, with Koko B. Ware, Honky Tonk Man, Slick and the tag-team of Demolition all contributing music that would accompany them to the ring in the years following. Again, Rick Derringer is in the producer’s chair, and again this gives the record an air of legitimacy that would otherwise be lacking.

Hit: Real American – Rick Derringer

Hidden Gem: Demolition – Rick Derringer with Ax & Smash

Rocks In The Attic #562: Various Artists – ‘Less Than Zero (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

rita562I watched this film for the first time recently. I’d always been aware of it because it’s one of a handful of notable soundtrack appearances by Aerosmith from around this time. The Aerosmith completist in me searched this record out long before I had a chance to watch the movie.

The soundtrack opens strongly with a Permanent Vacation-era Aerosmith rocking out to a cover of Huey “Piano” Smith’s Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu. Drummer Joey Kramer is on fine powerhouse form, and the band really sound as young and energetic as anybody else, enjoying their second lease of life in post-rehab sobriety. The record was released by Def Jam, and many of the songs were produced by Rick Rubin, so I can only presume Aerosmith are included as a result of the Run-DMC connection.

The rest of the record – mostly cover songs – is a patchy affair. Poison’s weak attempt at Kiss’ Rock And Roll All Nite belies the whole glam rock movement’s claim to artistic merit, Slayer’s version of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is fun, while the Bangles’ version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade Of Winter sounds like they’re on autopilot.

So I sat down to finally watch the film I knew the music of so well. I really wish I hadn’t. If anything, Less Than Zero resembles the awful St. Elmo’s Fire in terms of its shallow posturing, although it is slightly harder-edged coming a couple of years after that earlier film. As an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel, I have trouble seeing any of his satire on the screen as it seems to have been overwhelmed by big gloop of late-‘80s Hollywood sheen that engulfs the film.

Something terrible happened as I watched the final act of the film. I got a slap in the face from déjà vu when Andrew McCarthy’s character narrowly prevented Robert Downey, Jr.’s character from taking part in a gay tryst. Then, in the final shot of the film where McCarthy, Downey, Jr. and Jami Gertz are driving off into the sunset, and McCarthy realises that Downey, Jr. has died from a drug overdose, I had a realisation myself. I had seen this film before. I just hadn’t remembered it because it was so forgettable.

Hit: A Hazy Shade Of Winter – The Bangles

Hidden Gem: Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu – Aerosmith

Rocks In The Attic #560: Guns N’ Roses – ‘Appetite For Destruction’ (1987)

RITA#560.jpgI saw something last night I thought I’d never see – Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan on the same stage together. It’s been a long time coming, but for a large part of the twenty five years since I first heard Appetite For Destruction, it seemed unlikely that a reunion would ever happen. Slash kept himself busy, playing in Velvet Revolver (with Duff) before going on to record several decent solo albums. Axl retained the Guns N’ Roses name, touring the band in the 21st century with a host of stand-in musicians and finally releasing the long-threatened Chinese Democracy album in 2008. The new Axl was a portly fellow, rumoured to have an addiction to fried chicken and was described by one audience member in London as ‘a gold lamé blob up on stage.’ A reunion seemed as unlikely as all four Beatles playing together on stage.

Then the unthinkable happened. In 2016 Axl, Slash and Duff patched up their differences and announced a reunion tour. Who needs differences anyway when you’ve got millions of dollars to earn touring the world as a nostalgia act? Plus, that fried chicken won’t buy itself…

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The initial reaction was one of cynicism. Surely Axl would keep everybody waiting like he did in his prima donna days during the 1990s. Would it be worth buying a ticket if it meant waiting around for a few hours in the rain, waiting for Axl to finally take off his bathrobe and finish that last bucket of KFC? Of course it would!

Then the unthinkable part two happened. Axl landed the job as stand-in vocalist for AC/DC. It seems that Brian Johnson’s eardrums had enough of his own high-pitched screaming and put up a protest. He got a sick note from his doctor, ruling him out of that band due to the threat of permanent hearing loss. Step up, Mr. Rose.

It still hasn’t really sunk in that this actually happened – Axl Rose singing with AC/DC sounds like such an off-the-wall idea. Comparable to Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell singing in front of Rage Against The Machine. Oh wait, that actually happened too.

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What a great pairing – Axl DC – can it get any better? Brian Johnson’s vocals have never really fit the band if I have to be honest – there’s only so much shrieking I can handle, and after 1980’s Back In Black, there was a pretty consistent dip in quality. Other than Steven Tyler, Axl is the best choice to front Angus and company – he has the range to hit Brian Johnson’s high notes, and the ballsy tone to handle Bon Scott’s earlier material.

So the rock world waited with bated breath, and the unthinkable part three happened. Axl turned up on time and did his duty. No diva behaviour whatsoever – and best of all, his inclusion prompted the long-standing – and frankly, now quite boring – AC/DC set-list to change. They started playing songs they had rarely, if ever, played with Brian Johnson. Songs such as Riff Raff and Rock And Roll Damnation from 1978’s Powerage, If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) from 1979’s Highway To Hell, and 1975’s Live Wire (from the Australian T.N.T. album, or the international version of High Voltage). It was so refreshing to see these songs performed once again.

Then, one show into the GNR reunion tour, the unthinkable part four happened. Axl broke his foot. It’s still unclear how he did this – so one can only speculate that a bottle of Hot Sauce fell on his foot as he opened the fridge for a midnight feast of fried chicken. He ended up fulfilling the rest of GNR’s U.S. tour, and the remaining AC/DC dates sat on a throne of guitars borrowed from Dave Grohl.

Last night my wife took a bullet and stayed home to put the kids to bed so that I could go down early to catch the support band, Wolfmother. When I got to the stadium I spoke to a lovely lady named Lucy, who had endured a 9-hour bus trip from Gisborne to see the show. Crikey! She sat next to me as she rolled a joint, out of sight of the security staff, and in minutes we had bonded over our mutual dislike of Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers.

I was really looking forward to seeing Wolfmother after I caught them supporting Aerosmith in Dunedin back in 2013. At that concert, the sight of the band bouncing on to the stage like exuberant puppies made me smile. Four years later and they’ve reduced their ranks significantly. What was once a boisterous four- or five-piece back in 2013 has now distilled into a tight trio. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it meant one member was pulling more than his fair share of the weight – bassist Ian Peres also played keyboards, incredibly both at the same time during some songs.

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Twenty minutes later and Guns N’ Fucking Roses emerged. My wife had made it with just minutes to spare, and thankfully she was there to see opener It’s So Easy. They followed this with Mr. Brownstone, and Western Springs went off like a firework.

Axl did that jaunty side-to-side dance with his microphone stand, looking like a menopausal Nicole Kidman, Slash took all his solos with his guitar propped up on one elevated thigh, and Duff kept up on the bass, sticking his neck out to sing backing vocals.

The set-list was really strong with songs from Appetite For Destruction, and while I like most of the singles from the Use Your Illusion records, the songs from the debut record are just in a different class. They’re truly magical, and the whole of that first record is like lightning in a bottle.

I could never really work out why I liked Appetite so much more than the Use Your Illusion albums, and it wasn’t until I read Slash’s autobiography that I figured it out. Drummer Steven Adler – the one missing component that didn’t survive into that second line-up of the band – really provides the groove of ­Appetite. His replacement Matt Sorum is a powerhouse drummer himself, but Adler had something else – a swing that you don’t get with most 4/4 rock drummers. I’d have loved to have seen a full reunion with Adler on board, alongside original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, but I’m more than happy to have seen three out of the original five.

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Covers were well-represented, not surprisingly for a band with only four albums of original material to their name. As well as the likely contenders – Live And Let Die and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – they also played the Misfit’s Attitude, the Who’s The Seeker, and in one really touching moment, a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here afforded Slash and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus the opportunity for a lovely bit of guitar work. November Rain was prefaced with Axl playing the piano outro from Derek & The Domino’s Layla, and Slash played snippets of the Godfather theme, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) and Zeppelin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You before the night was through.

If I had one criticism, it was that the show could have easily been an hour shorter. After two hours when I told my wife that there was almost another hour left, she mimed shooting herself in the head (I noted that this was an odd thing to do in the presence of Duff McKagan, the last person to see Kurt Cobain alive; they found themselves sitting next to each other on a flight to Seattle where Cobain took his life a few days later).

At one point, the audience nearly chuckled themselves to death when Axl sang his big emotional number – This I Love, from the Chinese Democracy record. This was like bad wedding music; just awful and such a polar opposite to the youthful vibrance that is all over Appetite For Destruction.

Hit: Sweet Child O’Mine

Hidden Gem: Mr. Brownstone

Rocks In The Attic #540: George Fenton & Jonas Gwangwa – ‘Cry Freedom (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

rita540Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom told the tale of the white South African journalist Donald Woods. Against all odds, Woods reported on the struggles, and subsequent death, of black civil rights activist Steve Biko. It’s a compelling picture, typical of that type of late-‘80s ‘message’ film and remains just as powerful today.

Kevin Kline plays Woods, opposite Denzel Washington as Biko. After his long-standing tenure on TV’s St. Elsewhere, Cry Freedom served to be Denzel’s breakthrough into starring roles in films. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role, an award he would win two years later for Edward Zwick’s Glory.

I met Donald Woods once. He came to our sixth form as part of what I presume was a speaking tour of the UK. I remember a touch of awkwardness as he sat down at the front of the assembly area at a desk that was prepared for him. The teachers had decorated the desk with a pot plant that was probably a little too large for its purpose, and after sitting down, Woods looked quizzically at the plant, removed it and placed it on the floor next to him. “We’ll just move this down here,” he said, and everybody chuckled. This was the humanity of the man that Kline captured so well in Cry Freedom.

In the decades since, whenever I meet South Africans, I always tell them I’ve met Donald Woods. This should impress them, I think, but I’m always met with the same response: “Who?” To this day, I’ve never met a South African who has heard of him. Now, apart from their cartoonish depiction in Lethal Weapon 2, there can’t have been too many Hollywood films about South Africans in the late ‘80s. As a measure of how unseen – and unheard – South African voices were in that decade, Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon sequel can’t even describe the accent of the South African men who have broken into him home. It’s just so unfamiliar and alien to him (and the rest of the American cinema-going public).

So either I’ve met a bunch of uncultured South Africans in my life, or the film was somehow glossed over and ignored in the country in which it is set. I’m not sure what the answer is.

Hit: Crossroads – A Dawn Raid

Hidden Gem: Gumboots

Rocks In The Attic #519: Ennio Morricone – ‘The Untouchables (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

RITA#519aThere are no half-measures in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. It is a film of absolutes.

We open on a 1930 Chicago street, where a young girl falls victim to the bombing of a city bar. She’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, but her innocence is purely there to shock us. It is not enough for De Palma to simply suggest that she perishes in the explosion. Instead, the girl is shown holding the bomb the instant before it explodes. De Palma doesn’t give us the opportunity to look away.

Early in the film, Sean Connery’s beat cop Malone asks Elliot Ness about the lengths he’ll go to arrest mob boss Al Capone:

What are you prepared to do? You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.

Here, Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness is presented with absolutes. There is an established order in the city and corruption is rife in the police department. To defeat Capone, he must become the aggressor. To be the victor, protagonist must become antagonist.

After Ness’ first small victory against Capone’s crime empire, there are swift repercussions. At a business dinner with his henchmen, Capone punishes the one he sees as responsible by killing him with a baseball bat. Another absolute, this time to set an example.

This isn’t a film where the heroes don’t suffer consequences of their actions. Four soon becomes three and is then reduced to two.  In perhaps the film’s most emotional scene – of which there are many – Connery’s character, with his dying breath, again asks of Ness ‘What are you prepared to do?’

Even the name of their team – the Untouchables – suggests something absolute. In response, “Touchable” reads Capone’s message daubed in blood at the murder of the team’s accountant.

The Untouchables is also a film of set-pieces: the failed warehouse bust in the dead of night, the successful whiskey bust on the Canadian border, the train station shoot-out, the final showdown with Capone’s assassin on the courthouse roof. The train station sequence is probably the most famous scene in the film – a heavy-handed homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – featuring a gun battle between Ness, Andy Garcia’s Stone and a number of Capone’s henchmen attempting to protect his bookkeeper. The toppling baby carriage caught in the middle of the action provides the central focus of the exchange; we care as much for the safety of the baby as we do that Ness gets his man. The tension created by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow’s editing is almost unbearable. A standard action film would usually score this type of action with a bombastic soundtrack, but Ennio Morricone instead chooses a haunting children’s lullaby to contrast with the danger on screen.

Morricone’s score is full of surprises. The opening credits open with a driving orchestral main theme (The Strength Of The Righteous) contrasted with a solo harmonica – an echo of Morricone’s western soundtracks. The harmonica line follows a different melody and time-structure and can be read as an analogy of Ness’ struggles during the film. He begins as a solitary voice standing up against crime and corruption, just as the harmonica cuts through as a counterpoint to the thunderous main title.

We also hear the sound of opulence in the Al Capone theme, utilised over his scenes in his Lexington Hotel base. The aforementioned Machine Gun Lullaby is supremely affecting, and the two victory themes – Victorious and The Untouchables – find Morricone using the orchestra to soundtrack the rare victories over Capone’s empire.

One criticism of the film is that the soundtrack can occasionally come across as overly-sentimental and mawkish. It holds the hand of the audience, to ensure the correct emotive path is taken. Early in the film, Ness And His Family is used to soundtrack the agent’s home life immediately after we’ve seen the opening scene showing the girl as an innocent victim of the bombing. Morricone uses the score to contrast the horrors of what we’ve just seen with what Ness has to lose – his family, another absolute.

But it is Morricone’s score over Connery’s final scene – Death Theme, and its reprise in Four Friends – that I find the hardest to listen to. Just listening to the record conjures up a great emotional scene between Connery, Costner and Garcia. It’s almost too much to bear. Connery won the Best Supporting Oscar for the film, and most likely for that scene in particular. It was a rightful win; the crowning achievement of a film that doesn’t get the level of praise it deserves.

De Palma’s films are often conflicted. He is often criticised for a cinematic approach of style over substance. The Untouchables melds the two perfectly and absolutely.

Hit: The Strength Of The Righteous (Main Title)

Hidden Gem: Death Theme

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Rocks In The Attic #516: Carter Burwell – ‘Raising Arizona / Blood Simple (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

RITA#516aI was so happy to see this record looking back at me from the racks at Real Groovy. The soundtrack section is always my favourite place in a record shop, and Real Groovy’s never disappoints. I’ve found heaps of killer soundtracks there ever since I first visited the shop on my first trip to New Zealand in 2006.

There are some films you just don’t expect to find soundtracks for though. The Coen Brothers might have started their assault on Hollywood in the 1980s – the golden age of film soundtracks on vinyl – but for some reason I’d never expected to find any of their film soundtracks to add to my collection. Part of the reason is that their films are so highbrow, I just wouldn’t expect there to be any merchandising connected to the films. It’s not like you see guys wearing Hudsucker Proxy or Barton Fink t-shirts down at the local mall.

Raising Arizona was the first Coen Brothers films I saw. Its long-term effect on me firmly places it as my favourite of theirs. The film is probably more responsible than any other film for guiding me towards my cinematic likes and dislikes. There are some Coen Brothers films I love and some I just like, but there aren’t really any I dislike. Even films that they seem to be making for themselves, like the recent Hail Caesar, are still vastly superior and more entertaining than most of the formulaic bullshit to come out of Hollywood.

RITA#516bI remember seeing their debut Blood Simple relatively early on in my Coens-watching lifetime. It might have been the third film of theirs I saw after Raising Arizona and (probably) Fargo. I wasn’t ready to see it at that young age though. It washed over me and I didn’t really appreciate it. I gave it another chance about a year ago and it blew me away. A subtle, nourish thriller, one of its most haunting aspects is the moody score by Carter Burwell. Burwell would go on to score all of the Coen’s later works – an integral ingredient in their filmmaking process.

This record splits the two soundtracks – Blood Simple and Raising Arizona – over a single disc, giving a side to each film. You wouldn’t expect the two scores to have come from the same person. The brooding melancholy of Blood Simple is a million miles away from the yodelling banjos and heavenly synths of Raising Arizona.

Hit: Way Out ThereRaising Arizona

Hidden Gem: Crash And Burn Blood Simple