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
I 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.
So 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.
It 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.
I 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
I 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
I 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…
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.
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.
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.
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