Are you out of your mind, man?
Pull yourself together, the whole world is in lockdown!
Hit: Let’s Dance
Hidden Gem: Loving You Again
Imagine if George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ringo Starr and Jeff Lynne had got together and formed a band, maybe recorded an album together. What a project that would have been! Well imagine no more, as it did happen, in the form of this, George’s eleventh and final (in his lifetime) studio album from 1987.
The stars were definitely aligning around George around this time. The players on this album attest to the strength of this; neither of them needed the work. And it wasn’t the only supergroup that George would play with before the decade was out. A year later he and Jeff Lynne would form the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison – itself the result of a need to record a b-side for a Cloud Nine single.
In fact, it’s Jeff Lynne who I see as the unsung hero behind these two projects. His production is the reason Cloud Nine sounds so focused, compared to some of George’s more meandering efforts. It sounds upbeat and now, mainly thanks to that big drum sound – something he would apply again to Ringo’s drums ten years later on the Beatles’ ‘reunion’ singles, Free As A Bird and Real Love. Lynne would apply the same formula to Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever in 1989, before pulling Paul McCartney back on creative track with 1996’s Flaming Pie.
It’s sad that George didn’t release any more studio albums after this, before he died in 2002. Aside from working on the Beatles’ Anthology project, I guess he was happy just to tinker around in his garden, and bring up his son, Dhani.
Speaking of Dhani, I was happy to see his name credited as the composer of HBO’s recent documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed. Alongside his writing partner, Paul Hicks, he’s been working as a composer for films and TV shows since 2013. Given the soundtrack success of partnerships Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, it’s more than likely that we’ll hear more from Harrison and Hicks in the near future.
Hit: Got My Mind Set On You
Hidden Gem: Fish On The Sand
It’s a sad state of affairs when a horror film provokes not terror, but boredom. The first hour of this film easily qualifies as the worst of John Carpenter’s work up to that point. The audience is just as confused as the students in the film, as they try to understand who the central protagonist is (answer: there isn’t one), and why they’re setting up equipment in a creepy old church (answer: nobody knows, not even Carpenter).
Sandwiched between the director’s mainstream hit (Big Trouble In Little China) and his – in retrospect – return to form (They Live), Prince Of Darkness is an odd film. It’s clear that Carpenter is trying to revisit themes that have worked for him before – a band of individuals in a locked-off location (Assault On Precinct 13) slowly get picked off one by one (The Thing) – but this time, it just doesn’t work.
I admit that things do start to pick up in the second half of the film with some rip-roaring special effects, as the students are finally confronted by their possessed classmates (essentially zombies without the makeup), but by that point any emotional investment in the characters has dried out. Even a cameo appearance by the Godfather of Shock Rock, Alice Cooper, can’t make it right.
As always, the score by Carpenter himself, working alongside his now-regular collaborator Alan Howarth, is the film’s saving grace. A slow-burning synth workout.
Hit: Opening Titles
Hidden Gem: Hell Breaks Loose
I 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.
On 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
Living 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.
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.
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!”
Hidden Gem: Ironbound / Fancy Poultry
Floyd should have called it a day after Roger Waters left.
In fact, I dislike The Final Cut so much, they should have ended it after The Wall as far as I’m concerned. What was left after his departure was an empty shell of a band, driven by David Gilmour’s amateurish mundane lyrics – assisted by red wine and cocaine – and a vain attempt to recreate the musical feel of Shine On You Crazy Diamond.
Is this actually Pink Floyd, because it really sounds like Tears For Fears popped into the studio to write and record the instrumental Terminal Frost?
That said, Lapse is still the most listenable – and least offensively boring – of the three post-Waters studio albums. The production and sound effects hark back to the glory days of classic Floyd, and the cover art, by returning Floyd alumni Storm Thorgerson, is a great image of an endless row of hospital beds on the English coast.
But the most telling part of the record’s packaging is the band photo found inside the inner gatefold. With keyboardist Richard Wright officially out of the band due to legal reasons, and only credited in the liner notes for his contributions to the recording, David Bailey’s photograph of the 1987 version of Pink Floyd features just the pairing of guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason.
It marks the first time since 1971’s Meddle that a photo of the band has appeared in the artwork for any of their albums. But where the warts-and-all shot of Meddle presents the band as edgy students, Lapse now shows them as smug yuppy businessmen.
Hit: Learning To Fly
Hidden Gem: Signs Of Life
I 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.
The 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.
In 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