(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 4, 2023)
How do I describe Mojo Nixon to the uninitiated? Psychobilly anarchist? Novelty act? Social satirist? Performance artist? Brain-damaged? Smarter than he looks? The correct answer is “all of the above.” “Mojo Nixon” is also, of course, a stage persona; an alter ego created by Neill Kirby McMillan Jr., as we learn in Matt Eskey’s The Mojo Manifesto: The Life and Times of Mojo Nixon (available on digital platforms March 17th). My gateway to Nixon’s oeuvre was via “The Dr. Demento Show”, a weekly syndicated program we aired at the radio station I was working at back in the 1980s. The song was called “Elvis is Everywhere.”
Elvis is everywhere, man!
He’s in everything.
He’s in everybody…
Elvis is in your jeans.
He’s in your cheeseburgers
Elvis is in Nutty Buddies!
Elvis is in your mom!
It wasn’t so much the hilariously absurd stream-of-consciousness lyrics, as it was the unbridled commitment to the vocal that hooked me right away. Who was this guy? Turns out I wasn’t the only person sitting up and paying attention. While Nixon and his partner-in-crime Skid Roper (aka Richard Banke) already had a modest cult following and several albums under their belts, it was the surprise popularity of that 1987 single (and its accompanying video) that brought him to the attention of MTV viewers and to the public at large.
However, his follow-up “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child” put him at odds with MTV execs, who flat-out refused to air the video without several proposed edits. In a response emblematic of his perennially tenuous relationship with the business end of the music biz, Nixon shrugged and moved on (that period was the beginning of the end for MTV as we had known and loved it anyway).
The fact that he has stuck to his guns throughout his career is what most endears him to his ardent fans. Indeed, if anything, he doubled-down on the cheeky celebrity lawsuit-baiting with tunes like “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin” (referencing MTV VJ Martha Quinn), “Don Henley Must Die”, “Orenthal James (Was a Mighty Bad Man”, “Bring Me the Head of David Geffen”…well, you get the idea. Eskey’s equally cheeky documentary (opening with “Chapter Five”) begins in 1990, with footage of Nixon in the studio recording Otis, his first “solo” album after parting ways with Skid Roper, then moves the timeline back from there.
McMillan recalls growing up in Danville, Virginia. His parents were progressive liberals, which likely contributed to his activism at a relatively young age (he was arrested at 14 for protesting a local leash law). Later in college, he majored in poly-sci, but found himself becoming increasingly disillusioned with the idea of punching a clock. He moved to England for a spell, vowing to find a niche in London’s burgeoning punk scene (he ended up busking in the underground in order to survive, singing rockabilly standards).
The film traces how McMillan came up with his “Mojo Nixon” alter-ego, which provided a perfect foil to embody his divergent inspirations Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Guthrie, 50s rockabilly, and The Clash. It also delves a bit into how Nixon’s political stance began to lean more toward the libertarian side:
Also on hand to commentate (contemporary and archival) are Jello Biafra, Country Dick Montana, Kinky Friedman, Winona Ryder, John Doe, and others (the epilog reveals that his former creative partner Skid Roper declined to participate in the production of the documentary; which leaves you wondering what the story is there…perhaps the venerable “creative differences”?). Not unlike Nixon himself, Eskey’s portrait may be manic at times, but it’s honest, engaging, and consistently entertaining.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2022)
“After the Plastic Ono Band’s debut in Toronto…John finally brought it to its head. He said, ‘Well, that’s it, lads. Let’s end it. And we all said ‘Yes’.”
-Ringo Starr, from The Beatles Anthology (2000)
In September 1969, scarcely a month after the heady smoke of Woodstock had cleared, another music festival of note took place a little farther up north. While it couldn’t boast a crowd of “half a million strong” (just a scant 20,000) The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival arguably one-upped Woodstock’s stellar roster with its headliner: The Plastic Ono Band.
I say “arguably”, because at the time, no one in the audience had ever heard of The Plastic Ono Band. Hell…even the members of The Plastic Ono Band had never heard of The Plastic Ono Band, because founders John Lennon and Yoko Ono didn’t come up with the name (or the concept) until the day before the group’s debut performance in Toronto. The booking was so last-minute and seat-of-the-pants that their first “rehearsal” occurred (literally) on the fly…while en route to the gig on a chartered jet from England.
Of course, everyone in the audience knew who John Lennon was; the Beatles were still at the height of their success and fame. What the public didn’t know at the time was that the Toronto gig arose at a serendipitous moment, when Lennon found himself at a critical crossroads in his professional life. He was 28 years old. The Beatles had released their swan song Abbey Road earlier that year, and the band was on the verge of disintegrating.
Granted, Lennon had already been quite active outside of the band. He and Yoko had become prominent counterculture figures, known for their political activism and advocacy for peace and social justice. In March 1969, the couple married and held a week-long anti-Vietnam War “Bed-In” protest, garnering much media attention. They released the experimental album “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins.” Lennon also published his book of poems and drawings In His Own Write, which became a best-seller.
Meanwhile, in private Lennon struggled with depression and addiction; he later admitted to heavy drug use during this time (he and Yoko were both chasing the dragon). Creative differences with his band mates, as well as increasingly bitter stalemates regarding certain business decisions, were undoubtedly adding to Lennon’s tsuris. In short, things within the Beatles organization weren’t getting better (it can’t get no worse). The Toronto concert turned out to be not only the tonic he needed for regaining his confidence as a performer (he hadn’t played for a large crowd since the Beatles had stopped touring in 1966) but fueled his decision to officially leave the Beatles just a scant 7 days afterwards.
Exactly how John & Yoko, along with the hastily assembled Eric Clapton, Alan White, and Klaus Voorman (not too shabby for a pickup band) ended up headlining the event makes for a fascinating backstage tale…and it is recounted with much aplomb in a breezy documentary from Rob Chapman called Revival69: The Concert That Rocked the World.
Archival interviews, private audio recordings, present-day recollections by participants like John Brower (festival organizer), Klaus Voorman, Alice Cooper, Rodney Bingenheimer, Geddy Lee (acid-dazed teenage attendee!), Shep Gordon, Robby Kreiger, Robert Christgau, et.al. and original 16mm concert/backstage footage shot by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (much of it previously unreleased) are all combined to great effect.
While The Plastic Ono Band’s appearance is of undeniable historical import, this was an all-day event, and the roster was impressive: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Chicago, The Doors, and Alice Cooper are hardly what I’d consider “opening acts”. The Pennebaker footage is priceless, capturing electric performances with beautifully restored picture and sound. Unfortunately, Pennebaker’s original 1971 concert doc Sweet Toronto remains woefully scarce on home video; relegated to the odd unauthorized edition of less-than-stellar quality (paging the Criterion Collection).
Brower recalls how he came up with the idea for the festival while working as a promoter for the Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour. As his (at times hair-raising) narrative unfolds, it appears organizing such an event is easier said than done. At one point, with ticket sales looking dismal and only days to go before the heavily promoted event, he is ready to throw in the towel (at the risk of suffering serious bodily harm from dubious silent partners). However, an unlikely deus ex machina alights in the form of eccentric impresario Kim Fowley, who has a ballsy 11th-hour brainstorm (with 20/20 hindsight, it was a rather brilliant one, actually).
The film is chockablock with fun facts. I had no idea this was the first rock concert where the audience held lit matches aloft (another brainstorm by Fowley, who encouraged the crowd to welcome John & Yoko onstage with their own light show). Alice Cooper and his longtime manager Shep Gordon finally confirm “the truth” behind the infamous “chicken incident” that occurred during his band’s performance (as God is his witness, Alice thought that chickens could fly).
The film is a treat for Lennon completists, and rock and roll fans in general. Currently, the film is only exhibiting in Canada, but hopefully will be distributed in the U.S. (or become available via streaming or physical media) at some point in the near future.
And on behalf of the band here at Hullabaloo…Happy Crimble, and Peace.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2022)
Get out of my head…all of you.
– Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth
When a great artist dies, it is not uncommon to default to the old standby that “(he or she) meant so much, to so many people.” Of David Bowie (who returned to the cosmos in 2016), it may be more accurate to say that “he was so many people, who meant so much.”
Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible that he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie…
Of his myriad personas, David Jones remains the most enigmatic; perhaps, as suggested in Brett Morgen’s trippy Moonage Daydream (now on Blu-ray), even to Bowie himself. More On the Road than on the records, Morgen’s kaleidoscopic thesis is framed as a globe-trotting odyssey of an artist in search of himself (think of it as the Koyaanisqatsiof rock docs).
A caveat for fans: this is anything but a traditional, linear biographical portrait. Nearly all the “narration” is by Bowie himself, via strategically assembled archival interview clips (like the Beatles Anthology). Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of original Bowie music and scads of performance clips (the film was officially sanctioned by his estate, so I assume there were no licensing restrictions). The music is ever-present; just don’t expect it to be dissected and/or praised by the usual parade of musicologists and contemporaries.
While ardent fans (guilty) will recognize quite a few clips on loan from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: the Motion Picture (as well as other Bowie documentaries) there is some fascinating “new” footage here and there. A performance of “The Jean Genie” with Jeff Beck sitting in with the Spiders caught me by surprise (it was shot for Pennebaker’s 1973 film but had been omitted at Beck’s request). Beck and Mick Ronson are on fire, and it neatly closes the circle with the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man” …the obvious inspiration for the song’s main riff.
The best way to describe the experience of watching this film is to quote “Thomas Jerome Newton”, the alien played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film version of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man to Fell to Earth (screenplay adapted by Paul Mayersberg):
Television. The strange thing about television is that it – doesn’t *tell* you everything. It *shows* you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.
Morgen doesn’t tell you everything about Bowie’s life, he simply shows you. Even if David Jones’ “true mysteries” remain elusive as credits roll, the journey itself is quite absorbing and ultimately moving. And if you want to take the cosmic perspective, you, me and Moonage Daydream are all just waves in space…floating in a most peculiar way.
There has been a proliferation of documentaries profiling legendary session musicians of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond who helped create the “soundtrack of our lives” (Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Take Me to the River, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Hired Gun, etc.). One of the best of the batch is the 2008/2015 film The Wrecking Crew.
“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.
The eponymous film was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.
Tedesco’s new documentary, Immediate Family can be viewed as a “sequel”, essentially picking up where The Wrecking Crew left off. While many of the musicians profiled in the former film continued to work through the ensuing years, a new crop of hired guns began to make a name for themselves. Tedesco focuses on four players: bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russ Kunkel.
The names may not immediately ring a bell, but once you can associate faces with them, you’ll smack your forehead and say to yourself “Oh…that guy!” (especially Wachtel and Sklar, who sport quite distinctive hair and beard styles, respectively). Individually and collectively, the quartet has played in the studio and on the road with the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Don Henley, Keith Richards, and Phil Collins (all of whom are on hand to offer their two cents in the film).
All four players have had fascinating journeys, and when you realize their collective studio sessions number in the thousands, it’s impressive. It’s also inspiring for those of us of a…certain age that they remain so vibrant and productive well into their 70s. Entertaining road stories abound; Wachtel has the best ones, he’s quite the raconteur. His anecdote about a night he and Linda Ronstadt hit a strip club had me rolling.
Other luminaries who show up include Lyle Lovett, Stevie Nicks and Neil Young, as well as producers Peter Asher, Lou Adler and Mike Post. The film does get a tad redundant with the praise, and I think the phrase “It was a magical time” has now officially worn out its welcome-or maybe I’ve seen too many music docs. Still, I had a good time hanging out in the studio with these folks, and I think the film should strike a chord with any true music fan.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 22, 2022)
Hey…you wanna see something really scary? Real life. Because, let’s face it. Try as they might, Hollywood can never match the thrills, the chills…the abject horror of, say, watching the news, peeking in on your 401k, popping into a Denny’s at 3am, or waiting for the upcoming election results. Documentary filmmakers have been on to this little secret for years.
So forget the exploding squibs, the fake Karo syrup blood and severed prosthetic limbs-here’s my Top 13 list of creepy, scary, frightening, haunting, spine-tingling tales that you literally could not make up (as per usual, in no particular ranking order). Er….”enjoy”?
The Act of Killing – “At first, we beat them to death… [but] there was too much blood…to avoid the blood, I [devised] this system,” explains former Indonesian government death squad leader Anwar Congo, the “star” of Joshua Oppenheimer’s audacious documentary, and then helpfully gives us an instructive (and macabre) demonstration of his patented garroting method (with the assistance of a stick, some metal wire, and a giggly “victim”).
Then, the eupeptic Congo breaks into an impromptu cha-cha dance.
This is but one of many surreal moments in Oppenheimer’s film (exec produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog). Congo is a self-described “gangster” who claims to have personally snuffed out 1,000 lives during the state-sanctioned liquidation of an estimated 1,000,000 “communists” that followed in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government.
Congo and Koto were not only amenable to happily skip down memory lane revisiting the scenes of their crimes, but offered to reenact their exploits by portraying themselves in a Hollywood-style gangster epic. This counter-intuitive mash-up of hard-hitting investigative journalism and ebullient “Hey, I have a barn, let’s put on a show!” participation from the very parties the filmmaker aims to expose could make some viewers’ heads explode.
I know what you’re thinking: These men are morally reprehensible, untouchable and beyond redemption, so why indulge them this sick fantasy? (Picture the warm and fuzzy feeling you’d get if the next Powerball winner turned out to be one of those 97 year-old former Nazi camp guards). What’s Oppenheimer’s point? Is he crazy? He’s crazy all right. Like a fox. Because something extraordinary happens to one of our “heroes” when he insists on playing one of his own victims in an execution reenactment. Watch it and be amazed. (Full review)
The Atomic Cafe – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).
In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).
Brother’s Keeper– An absolutely riveting true-crime documentary about a dirt-poor, semi-literate rural upstate New York farmer named Delbert Ward, who was charged with murdering his brother in 1990. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky follow a year or so in the life of Delbert and his two surviving brothers, as they weather pressures of the trial and the surrounding media circus .
The clock seems to have stopped around 1899 on the aging bachelor brothers’ run-down farm, where they live together in relative seclusion in a small, unheated shack (at times, one is reminded of the family in the classic X-Files episode, “Home”)
The prosecution claims the brothers conspired to kill their ailing sibling, coming up with some odd motives. The defense attorney’s conjecture is that the victim died of natural causes, and that Delbert was coerced by law enforcement into signing a written confession (admitting a “mercy killing”), taking advantage of the fact that he is poor and uneducated. He also cagily riles up the town folk to rally behind “the boys” by portraying the D.A. and investigating authorities as city slickers, out to railroad a simple farmer.
Is Delbert really “simple”? Watch and decide for yourself.
The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects every life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.
Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.
The Cruise– A number of years ago I became friends with a co-worker who would pace his living room, quaffing beers and expounding on the universe. Sometimes, he would stop dead in his tracks, give me a faraway look, and say, “Trust me, Dennis-you don’t want to be in here,” while stabbing a finger at his forehead. Then, he would resume his pacing and pontificating. The idea of being in someone else’s head is always a bit “horror show”, don’t you think?
If you can take it, Bennett Miller’s one-of-a-kind 1998 documentary portrait spends nearly 80 minutes in “here”. Specifically, inside the head of one Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s double-decked Gray Line buses. Levitch’s world view is …interesting, to say the least. And he is nothing, if not verbose. Is he crazy? Is he some kind of post-modern prophet? Or is he yet another eccentric, fast-talking New Yorker? It’s a strange, unique and weirdly exhilarating roller coaster ride through the consciousness of being.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston-The true horror of schizophrenia can only be known by those afflicted, but this 2005 rockumentary about cult alt-folk singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston is the next worse thing to being there. Johnston has waged an internal battle between creative inspiration and mental illness most of his life (see: Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Joe Meek).
As recounted in Jeff Feuerzig’s film, Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, repeatedly stumbles into the right place at the right time, steadily amassing a sizeable grass roots following. Everything is in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his pilot father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.
The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America). By turns darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring.
Gimme Shelter – It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly known for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the infamous incident at a 1969 Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show)-but there you have it (and hence its inclusion here). Those scant seconds of the doc’s running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the top rockumentaries. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.
Grey Gardens– “The Aristocrats!” There’s no murder or mayhem involved in this real-life Gothic character study by renowned documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), but you’ll still find it to be quite creepy.
Edith Bouvier Beale (in her early 80s at the time of filming) and her middle aged daughter Edie were living under decidedly less than hygienic conditions in a spooky old dark manor in East Hampton, L.I. with a menagerie of cats and raccoons when the brothers profiled them (their “high society” days were, needless to say, behind them).
The fact that the women were related to Jackie O (Edith the elder was her aunt) makes this Fellini-esque nightmare even more twisted. You are not likely to encounter a mother-daughter combo quite like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” more than once in a lifetime. The cult appeal of the Edies was not lost on Broadway; a musical adaptation ran for 2 years.
In the Realms of the Unreal-Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.
The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously composed in long hand over a period of decades (literally his life’s work). The subject at hand: A mythic universe largely populated by young, naked hermaphrodites (the”Vivian Girls”).
Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a filthy old perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly mesmerizing it all is (especially if you view an exhibit, which I had a chance to do at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum back in 2007). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work, with actors reading excerpts from the tome.
An Inconvenient Truth– It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi has become scientific fact-now that’s scary. In Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 doc, former VP Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that this chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming is only showing us the tip of the proverbial iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.
Sicko– Torture porn for the uninsured! Our favorite agitprop filmmaker, Michael Moore, grabs your attention right out of the gate with a real Buñuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.
The film proceeds to delve into some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most horrifying of all) the compassion-challenged bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need. Better eat your Wheaties. (Full review)
Standard Operating Procedure – There was a fascinating documentary on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.
Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.
If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just folks from the office, hamming it up for the camera. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.
What were they thinking?
This is the same rhetorical question posed by an interviewee in Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. The questioner is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators. The “answer” is complicated…and what ensues not easy to watch. Nonetheless, Morris’ film is a compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review).
Zoo-It was disturbing enough when the Seattle press broke the story in 2005 about a Boeing engineer dying from a perforated colon as the result of his “love” of horses. But when it was subsequently revealed that the deceased was a member of a sizable group of like-minded individuals, calling themselves “zoophiles”, who traveled from all over the country to converge on a farm where their “special needs” were catered to, I remember thinking that here was a scenario beyond the ken of a Cronenberg or a Lynch; this was true horror.
That said, there is still a “bad car wreck” fascination about the tale, which makes this an eerie and compelling Errol Morris-style documentary about the darkest side of (in) human desire. To their credit, writer-director Robinson Devor and his co-writer Charles Mudede maintain a sensitive, neutral tone throughout; the film is not as exploitative as one might assume.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2022)
Ah, July 4th weekend. Nothing kicks off Summer like an all-American holiday that encourages mass consumption of animal flesh (charcoal-grilled to carcinogenic perfection), binge drinking, and subsequent drunken handling of explosive materials. Well, for most people. Being the semi-reclusive weirdo that I am (although I prefer the term “gregarious loner”), nothing kicks off summer for me like holing up for the holiday weekend with an armload of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll musicals. For your consideration (or condemnation) here are my Top 15. Per usual, I present them in no ranking order. For those about to rock…I salute you.
Bandwagon – A taciturn musician, still reeling from a recent breakup with his girlfriend, has a sudden creative spurt and forms a garage band. The boys pool resources, buy a beat-up van (the “Band” wagon, get it?) and hit the road as Circus Monkey. The requisite clichés ensue: The hell-gigs, backstage squabbles, record company vultures, and all that “art vs commerce” angst; but John Schultz’s crisp writing and directing and mostly unknown cast carry the day.
Indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan stands out, as does Chapel Hill music scene fixture Doug McMillan (lead singer of The Connells) as a Zen-like road manager (the director is one of McMillan’s ex-band mates). The original soundtrack is an excellent set of power-pop (you’ll have “It Couldn’t Be Ann” in your head for days). Anyone who has been a “weekend rock star” will recognize many of the scenarios; any others who apply should still be quite entertained.
The Commitments – “Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Casting talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius by director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. In some respects, The Commitments is an expansion of Parker’s 1980 film Fame; except here the scenario switches from New York to Dublin (there’s a bit of a wink in a scene where one of the band members breaks into a parody of the Fame theme).
However, these working-class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong, who has the soulful pipes of someone who has been smoking 2 packs a day for decades. In 2007, cast member/musician Glen Hansard co-starred in John Carney’s surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely character study that would make a perfect double bill with The Commitments.
Expresso Bongo– This 1959 British gem from Val Guest undoubtedly inspired Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners– from the opening tracking shot giddily swooping through London’s Soho district coffee bar/music club milieu, to its narrative about naive show biz beginners with stars in their eyes and exploitative agents’ hands in their wallets. Laurence Harvey plays his success-hungry hustler/manager character with chutzpah. The perennially elfin Cliff Richard plays it straight as Harvey’s “discovery”, Bongo Herbert.
The film includes performances by the original Shadows (Richards’ backup band), featuring guitar whiz Hank Marvin (whom Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page have cited as a seminal influence). The smart, droll screenplay (by Julian More and Wolf Mankowitz) is far more sophisticated than most of the U.S. produced rock’ n ’roll musicals of the era (films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Rock Rock do feature priceless performance footage, but the story lines are dopey).
A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity.
Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and the fab title song.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – It’s your typical love story. A German teen named Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell) falls for a G.I., undergoes a less than perfect sex change so they can marry, and ends up seduced and abandoned in a trailer park somewhere in Middle America. The desperate Hansel opts for the only logical way out…he creates an alter-ego named Hedwig, puts a glam-rock band together, and sets out to conquer the world. How many times have we heard that tired tale?
But seriously, this is an amazing tour de force by Mitchell, who not only acts and sings his way through this entertaining musical like nobody’s business, but directed and co-wrote (with composer Steven Trask, with whom he also co-created the original stage version).
Jailhouse Rock-The great tragedy of Elvis Presley’s film career is how more exponentially insipid each script was from the previous one. Even the part that mattered the most (which would be the music) progressively devolved into barely listenable schmaltz (although there were flashes of brilliance, like the ’69 Memphis sessions).
Fortunately, however, we can still pop in a DVD of Jailhouse Rock, and experience the King at the peak of his powers before Colonel Parker took his soul. This is one of the few films where Elvis actually gets to breathe a bit as an actor (King Creole is another example).
Although he basically plays himself (an unassuming country boy with a musical gift from the gods who becomes an overnight sensation), he never parlayed the essence of his “Elvis-ness” less self-consciously before the cameras as he does here. In addition to the iconic “Jailhouse Rock” song and dance number itself, Elvis rips it up with “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains– A punk version of A Star is Born. This 1981 curio (initially shelved from theatrical distribution) built a cult base, thanks to showings on USA Network’s Night Flight back in the day. As a narrative, this effort from record mogul turned movie director Lou Adler would have benefited from some script doctoring (Slap Shot screenwriter Nancy Dowd is off her game here) but for punk/new wave nostalgia junkies, it’s still a great time capsule.
Diane Lane plays a nihilistic mall rat who breaks out of the ‘burbs by forming an all-female punk trio with her two cousins (played by Marin Kanter and then-15 year-old Laura Dern). They dub themselves The Stains. Armed with a mission statement (“We don’t put out!”) and a stage look possibly co-opted from Divine in Pink Flamingos, this proto-riot grrl outfit sets out to conquer the world (and learn to play their instruments along the way).
Music biz clichés abound, but it’s a guilty pleasure, due to real-life rockers in the cast. Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick of The Tubes are a hoot as washed up glam rockers. The fictional punk band, The Looters (fronted by an angry young Ray Winstone) features Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.
The Phantom of the Paradise – To describe writer-director Brian DePalma’s 1974 horror schlock-rock musical take-off on The Phantom of the Opera as “over the top” would be understatement.
Paul Williams (who composed the memorable soundtrack) chews all the available scenery as ruthless music mogul “Swan”, a man with a curious predilection for insisting his artists sign their (somewhat long-term) contracts in blood. One who becomes so beholden is Winslow (William Finely) a talented composer hideously disfigured in a freak accident (and that’s only the least of his problems). Jessica Harper plays the object of poor Winslow’s unrequited desire, who is slowly falling under Swan’s evil spell.
Musical highlights include the haunting ballad “Old Souls” (performed by Harper, who has a lovely voice) and “Life at Last”, a glam rock number performed by “The Undead”, led by a scene-stealing Gerrit Graham camping it up as the band’s lead singer “Beef”.
Quadrophenia –The Who’s eponymous 1973 double-LP rock opera, Pete Towshend’s musical love letter to the band’s first g-g-generation of most rabid British fans (aka the “Mods”) inspired this 1979 film from director Franc Roddam. With the 1964 “youth riots” that took place at the seaside resort town of Brighton as catalyst, Roddam fires up a visceral character study in the tradition of the British “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the early 1960s.
Phil Daniels gives an explosive, James Dean-worthy performance as teenage “Mod” Jimmy. Bedecked in their trademark designer suits and Parka jackets, Jimmy and his Who (and ska)-loving compatriots cruise around London on their Vespa and Lambretta scooters, looking for pills to pop, parties to crash and “Rockers” to rumble with. The Rockers are identifiable by their greased-back hair, leathers, motorbikes, and their musical preference for likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent.
Look for a very young (and much less beefier) Ray Winstone (as a Rocker) and Sting (as a Mod bell-boy, no less). Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s music.
Rock and Roll High School – In this 1979 cult favorite from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.
I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own films under Corman’s tutelage) and Mary Waronov (hilarious as the very strict principal.) R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show– The decades have not diminished the cult appeal of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who stumble into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night.
Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but with such spirited performances (and musical numbers) you won’t notice. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.
Starstruck-Gillian Armstrong primarily built her rep on female empowerment dramas like My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Charlotte Gray; making this colorful, sparkling and energetic 1982 trifle an anomaly in the Australian director’s oeuvre. But it’s a lot of fun-and I’ve watched it more times than I’d care to admit.
It does feature a strong female lead , free-spirited Jackie (Jo Kennedy) who aspires to be Sydney’s next new wave singing sensation, with the help of her kooky, entrepreneurial-minded (and frequently truant) teenage cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) who has designated himself as publicist/agent/manager. Goofy, high-spirited and filled to the brim with catchy power pop (with contributions from members of Split Enz and Mental as Anything). Musical highlights include “I Want to Live in a House” and “Monkey in Me”.
Still Crazy– Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? A: Homeless! If that old chestnut still makes you chortle, then you will “get” this movie. Painting a portrait of an “almost great” 70’s British band reforming for a 90’s reunion tour, Brian Gibson’s 1998 dramedy Still Crazy does Spinal Tap one better (you could say this film goes to “eleven”, actually). Unlike similar rock ‘n’ roll satires, it doesn’t mock its characters, rather it treats them with the kind of respect that comes from someone who genuinely loves the music.
Great performances abound. Bill Nighy stands out in a hilarious yet poignant performance as the insecure lead singer of Strange Fruit. Prog-rock devotees will love the inside references, and are sure to recognize that the character of the “lost” leader/guitarist is based on Syd Barrett. Still, you don’t need to be a rabid rock geek to enjoy this film; its core issues, dealing with mid-life crisis and the importance of following your bliss, are universal themes.
Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford are among the contributors to the original soundtrack. I also recommend Gibson’s 1980 debut Breaking Glass (a similar but slightly darker rumination on music stardom). Sadly, the director died at age 59 in 2004.
Tommy –There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those arrangements, but it’s a pretty good bet that watching director Ken Russell’s insane screen adaptation is a close approximation. If you’re not familiar with his work, hang on to your hat (I’ll put it this way-Russell was not known for being subtle).
Luckily, the Who’s music is powerful enough to cut through the visual clutter, and carries the day. Two band members have roles-Roger Daltrey as the deaf dumb and blind Tommy, and Keith Moon has a cameo as wicked Uncle Ernie (Pete Townshend and John Entwistle only appear briefly).
The cast is an interesting cross of veteran actors (Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson) and well-known musicians (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner). Musical highlights include “Pinball Wizard”, “Eyesight to the Blind” “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”.
True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.
Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)
As a lifetime Beatle fan, I like to think that everything I don’t know about the Fabs wouldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece…but I’ll confess that I learned a new thing or two about John Lennon’s infamous mid-life crisis in this engrossing documentary, directed by Eve Brandstein, Richard Kaufman, and Stuart Samuels.
This “lost weekend” (coined as such by Lennon himself) lasted approximately a year and a half, from 1973 into 1974, and was precipitated by a rocky period in his storied marriage with Yoko Ono. According to the mythology, Yoko gave John “permission” to sow his wild oats for a spell.
She had a caveat…the couple’s devoted personal assistant May Pang was to accompany John as his “girlfriend”. No matter how you look at it, this was an unconventional separation. It’s no secret that Lennon and Pang became a very public item. History has not always been kind to Ms. Pang, who was arguably caught in the middle of a marital power struggle between her employers.
With this film, Pang finally gets a chance to tell her story…and it’s a real eye-opener. Her entrée into the rarefied air of the Beatles’ inner circle by the tender age of 19 plays like a fairy tale, especially considering her modest beginnings growing up in Spanish Harlem. Her parents were Chinese immigrants; a rocky relationship with her dismissive father drove her to seek solace in rock and roll music (and of course, to discover the Beatles).
The expected anecdotes associated with “the lost weekend” are here-Lennon’s purloined bacchanal with “The Hollywood Vampires”, the wild studio sessions with Phil Spector, et.al. (and a few you may not have previously heard). But the real heart of the film is the story of how Pang’s relationship with Lennon developed (more organically than has been generally assumed). Julian Lennon is also on hand to offer his perspective. A lovely and affecting memoir by Pang, and a treat for Beatle fans.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2022)
“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass writer trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?
God, I hate that.
But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Anyway, whoever did say it originally, probably can’t remember if they were in fact the person who said it first…so it’s moot.
Here’s the good news. While the ethos that informs Lonnie Frazier’s Box of Rain has inescapable, foundational roots in 60s counterculture, I’m happy to report her documentary about the “Deadhead” community features minimal archival footage of antiwar demonstrations and love-ins, and “Fortunate Son” is nowhere to be heard. Nor will you even hear any Dead songs…which I assume is due to a licensing issue.
That said, Frazier’s film isn’t so much about the Dead …or their music per se, as it is about a multi-generational community of devoted fans blissfully nonplussed by ever-shifting musical trends (the band’s final studio album was 1989’s Built to Last ). As Jerry Garcia once observed “We didn’t invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead. We were just in line to see what was going to happen.”
This uniquely symbiotic relationship between the Dead (arguably the first “D.I.Y.” band) and their fans was the impetus for their famously mercurial live performances-which could run 1 hour…or 5 hours, depending on the vibe between audience and artist:
The  Bickershaw Festival [in the UK] brought together a number of West Coast American acts such as Country Joe McDonald, the New Riders, and the Dead with some of the big British names, including Donovan and The Kinks. The Dead played on the last day of the three-day festival. And by the time they came out, the crowd had been drenched and muddy for the entire time. Not had it rained throughout at the flood-prone site, but the organizers had emptied a pool used for a high-dive act – there were various circus-type performances – right in front of the stage. But none of this dampened the Dead’s playing or the crowd’s enthusiasm for it. Reportedly, Elvis Costello – just an eighteen-year-old unknown pub singer – stood in awe throughout the [nearly 5-hour] set and convinced him he should start a band.
Now that’s dedication. Or something. Whatever “it” is, it enables thousands to feel “at home” hippie-dancing in the mud for 5 hours (creating a psychedelic maelstrom of paisley and tie-dye you could see from space). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as everybody had a good year, everybody let their hair down, and nobody got hurt. And if “home” is (as they say) where the heart is, then the heart of Frazier’s film is about how she found a home away from home as a Deadhead.
In the intro, Frazier intones “Most dictionaries define ‘home’ as the place where one lives permanently, as the member of a family. Home is a place where you feel safe, loved, accepted, and where you feel like you belong. But what if the family you’re born into doesn’t offer you these things? When the house you live in looks perfect from the outside…but feels quite the opposite behind closed doors?” She then recounts a traumatic experience that plunged her into a suicidal depression at age 17.
I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t this supposed to be about peace, love, and good vibes?” Patience, grasshopper. Fortunately, a free ticket to a Dead show proved to be a deus ex machina that placed her on a path to healing and happiness. Frazier looks up the two friends who hooked her up with the ticket and retraces the road trip the three women took in 1985 to see the Dead perform at Red Rocks in Colorado.
However, this isn’t solely a stroll down memory lane, but a Whitman’s sampler of the fan culture, direct from the mouths of beatific Deadheads. I know we live in a cynical age and all, but these folks seem so genuinely…nice, and the interviews do convey a lovely sense of “family” within the Deadhead community. It’s a breezy enough 72 minutes, even if I found the road stories and “favorite concert” minutiae less than gripping; but hey, man-I’m only a casual fan who never felt compelled to go see the Dead live, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt …and a touch of grey.
“Box of Rain” is streaming now on various digital platforms.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)
Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary is a beautifully constructed profile of singer Sinéad O’Connor. Arguably, O’Connor is more well-known for making her polarizing anti-Vatican remarks on SNL than for her music catalog-but history has proven not only the prescience of that stance, but how her refusal to “just shut up and sing” has inspired female artists and activists who followed in her footsteps to speak truth to power (“They tried to bury me, but didn’t realize they’d planted a seed,” she says). A superb portrait of an artist with true integrity. It’s a Showtime production, so if you’re a subscriber, keep your eyes peeled for it.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 29, 2022)
Black is beautiful
White is alright
Your half-caste child
Do you wanna fight
Do you wanna fight
Black girl carries
Her flick knife
Will she cut me up
For being half white
The national front
Are after me
Can’t you see
“Half-Caste”, unpublished poem by Poly Styrene (1957-2011)
I was leafing through my dog-eared copy of George Gimark’s exhaustive Punk Diary 1970-1979 (currently out-of-print) and came across this entry under September 14, 1977:
X-Ray Spex have just been signed by Virgin Records. The group is fronted by a mulatto Brixton youth calling herself Poly Styrene. She’s no stranger to the recording world and had a single out under her real name Marion Elliot last year. Since seeing the Pistols play, she’s become a regular around the Roxy Club, resplendent in her dayglo vinyl, psychedelic kilt and full set of dental braces. They’ll be releasing X-Ray Spex’s debut single on the 30th. This is not X-Ray Spex’s first appearance on vinyl though. You remember they were included on the “Roxy” album singing “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” the same song they will re-record for Virgin in the next few weeks. Other members of the group include Jak Airport on guitar, Paul Dean on bass, B.P. Hurding on drums, and Laura Logic on saxophone. They’ve been playing together since January, and now are prepared to hit the big time, invading the male-dominated punk world.
I reckon very few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether it was by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She was not only “invading the male-dominated punk world” of the late 1970s (which, despite its imminent association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was still an overtly “laddish” club), but was doing so as a woman of color (the Anglo-Somali singer-songwriter is credited as the progenitor of the Riot Grrrl and Afro-Punk movements).
If you’ve ever seen X-Ray Spex’s video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, you know that Styrene had a charismatic presence and powerful voice that belied her diminutive stature. With its “fuck you” lyrics and strident vocal, that song is now a feminist punk anthem; but according to an absorbing new documentary called Poly Styrene: I Am aCliché (co-directed by narrator Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, with additional narration by Ruth Negga) Styrene never really identified as a feminist or a punk.
Bell (Styrene’s daughter) confides her mother “…always said she’d never considered herself a ‘punk’…that it was just a label, coined by journalists. At the same time, she recognized that the scene was a perfect vehicle for her own creative transformation.” That’s one of many unexpected twists in an artist’s journey that begins in working-class Brixton, makes a life-changing whistle stop in the Bowery, and ends in one of India’s most sacred rivers.
By the time Bell was born in the 80s, her mother’s initial fame as a punk-rocker had waned; Bell’s earliest childhood memories stem from a period when the pair lived in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna commune in Hertfordshire (they would later resettle in Brixton). Upon Styrene’s death from breast cancer in 2011, Bell became custodian of her mother’s artistic estate. Bell’s access to those archives provided impetus for the film.
Sadly, Styrene struggled with a bi-polar disorder throughout her life (initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia). Bell navigates this aspect with the sensitivity and compassion as only a close family member could, and it is genuinely moving.
Fame, in and of itself, can do a number on someone’s head; especially for women in a business where appearance is (right or wrong) …everything. As Bell explains, “When mum was young, she was pretty confident about the way she looked. She’d never been short of admirers. But the experience of being famous made her insecure; the public scrutiny over the way she looked started to grate on her. She felt like journalists were celebrating her by insinuating that she was unattractive and overweight-totally not getting what she was trying to achieve choosing not to expose her voluptuous form on stage.”
A perfect illustration of this maddening double-standard comes in a recollection of one incident. After a humiliating experience wherein a member of the Sex Pistols played a cruel prank on her at a party, Poly disappeared into the bathroom for a spell. Upon re-emerging, she sported a shaved head. The timing was unfortunate, as X-Ray Spex was on the bill for the now-historic Rock Against Racism event the next day. The 1978 rally/music festival (headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band) was held in London’s Victoria Park, and attended by an estimated 100,000 people.
To her band mates’ relief, she showed up to the gig with a woolen scarf on her head. While performing the song “Identity”, she slowly unraveled the scarf to reveal a bald pate. There were audible gasps from the crowd, but giggles from her band mates. Obviously, she was not expressing solidarity with the racist National Front skinheads (AWK-ward!). She had once told her band mates she never wanted to be a sex symbol, and joked if she ever were to become one, she’d shave her head. Always fearless; and hopefully, thanks to this lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist, never forgotten.
“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” premieres On Demand February 4th.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)
We went to see those movies with Elvis. They’d all scream when he came on screen. So we thought “That’s a good job!” – John Lennon, from a television interview.
By the time the Beatles “debuted” on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964, they already had a rich 7-year history. The four polished pros in slick suits didn’t simply pop out of Liverpool fully formed; they had paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints (including the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period” from 1960-1962). But for fans here in the colonies, they descended like gods from the heavens.
People of “a certain age” reflexively say they “remember” watching the Beatles perform on Sullivan nearly 57 years ago (whether they did or not). For me that “memory” is fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was 7 years old; too young to grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad labeled any rock ’n’ roll song he heard wafting from my room throughout my formative years).
Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet). And weekly programs like Sullivan were broadcast anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks later than they aired in the Lower 48. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles “live” on Sullivan…on a slight tape delay.
In the Summer of 1967, I discovered two things that changed my life. As much as I would like to be able to tell you that it was body painting and tripping on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains much to long-time readers).
The second thing was record collecting. I scored my first-ever haul of vinyl, blowing three months’ allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I bought two LPs (at $3.98 a pop), and a 45. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever”. That was my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.
Flash-forward 35 years. I was enjoying my first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. At the Beatles exhibit, I happened upon a glass case that contained some weathered pieces of paper with hand-written lyrics. I lingered over one, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the scribbled-out words and such:
But you know I know when it’s a bean? Huh? It still wasn’t registering as to what I was looking at. However, when I got to: I think I know I mean-er-yes, but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree I realized that I was “this” close to John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. My mind was blown. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of genius.
Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to look at it? Should I turn my face away, so it wouldn’t melt like the Nazis’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Belloq lifts the lid of the Sacred Object? “Don’t look at it, Marion!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. At any rate, I was overcome; there was something profoundly moving about the experience.
By 1969, the Beatles had done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.
Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?
Hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through the 1970 documentary, Let it Be? Filmed in 1969 and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the movie was originally intended to be a TV special but ended up documenting the “making of” the eponymous album (there were also snippets of the band working on several songs that ended up on Abbey Road).
Sadly, the film has since weathered a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. Granted, there is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where an uncharacteristically riled-up George reaches the end of his tether with Paul’s fussiness).
Still, signs of a deeply rooted musical camaraderie remain in that outdoor mini concert filmed on a London rooftop. If you look closely, the boys are exchanging glances that telegraph they’re having a grand time jamming out; an affirmation that this is what this band of brothers were put on this earth to do, and what the hell …it’s only rock ’n’ roll.
The Let it Be movie doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how tumultuous 1969 was for the band. As Ian MacDonald notes in his excellent 1994 assessment of the Beatles’ catalog, Revolution in the Head:
The day after the rooftop concert, the band recorded three songs unsuited to recital in a moderate gale [“Two of Us”, “Let it Be”, and “The Long and Winding Road”] before winding the [recording sessions for the “Let it Be” album] up in some relief. An ignominious failure which shook their faith in their collective judgement, it had pushed them to the verge of collapse. […]
[soon after the “Let it Be” sessions wrapped] a fatal rift in the group’s relationships opened when Lennon, Harrison, and Starr asked the Rolling Stones’ American manager Allen Klein to take over the Beatles’ affairs. McCartney, who favoured Linda Eastman’s family firm of management consultants, immediately opened a court battle which long outlasted the remainder of the Beatles’ career.
The dream was over. Or so it seemed. The boys were not about to go out on a sour note (at least in a creative sense). As Bob Spitz writes in his exhaustive band bio, The Beatles:
The tapes from earlier in the year that would eventually become “Let it Be” languished in the can, abandoned, a victim of haste and sloppy execution. “[They] were so lousy and so bad,” according to John – “twenty-nine hours of tape …twenty takes of everything – that “none of us would go near them …None of us could face remixing them; it was [a] terrifying [prospect].” “It was laying [sic] dormant and so we decided ‘Let’s make a good album again,’” George recalled.
One drawback with the Let it Be film (aside from the fact it’s been out of circulation for decades and unavailable on home video outside of the odd bootleg) was its relatively short running time. Considering director Lindsay-Hogg had 60 hours of footage at his disposal, the original 81-minute theatrical cut feels stingy; leaving little room for nuance or providing context to the on-camera bickering the 1970 film is chiefly remembered for.
Perhaps predictably in this age of Tweet-length attention spans, there has been much lamentation and rending of garments regarding the decidedly less stingy running time of Peter Jackson’s nearly 8-hour long Get Back, his oft delayed and long-awaited re-edit, sifted from Lindsay-Hogg’s trove of footage (now streaming on Disney+ as a 3-part series). All I can say to those folks is I’ve got no time for you right now, don’t bother me.
The beauty of Jackson’s film is that his extended cut allows room for nuance and context around those storied studio spats, which in fact did not “cause” the break-up of the Beatles; rather they were symptoms of a longtime creative partnership that was literally “aging out”. Three-quarters of the band (John Paul, and George) had been collaborating since they were in their mid-teens; now they were all in their late 20s.
Like any other human being, as each member of the band matured, their individual priorities (as people and as creative artists) diverged. This was evidenced by the release of solo albums from all four members in 1970, the same year Let It Be saw its belated release: Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues and Sentimental Journey, Paul’s McCartney, John’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and George’s epic triple album All Things Must Pass.
In fact, one of the film’s greatest delights is catching snippets of songs (still in their infancy) that would end up on later solo albums. John sings “On the Road to Marakesh/Child of Nature” which would turn up in 1971’s Imagine (with different lyrics) as “Jealous Guy” and works on refining a few lines of verse for “Gimme Some Truth” (also destined for Imagine).
George runs a song by the lads that he’s “been working on” called “All Things Must Pass” (it’s already well-formed at that stage). Paul noodles out a recognizable bit of “Another Day” on the piano, which would be his first solo single hit in 1971, and the gorgeous intro to “Backseat of My Car” (a highlight of 1971’s Ram).
Get Back apes the basic structure of Lindsay-Hogg’s Let it Be; the shoot (initially intended to end up as a TV documentary) begins with fitful and half-hearted rehearsals on a sound stage in the drafty (and acoustically-challenged) Twickenham Film Studios. Paul tries to play cheerleader to his cranky band mates (leading to some of the on-camera “bickering”, although it mostly manifests as passive-aggressive asides).
Director Lindsay-Hogg comes off a bit fitful and half-hearted himself; obviously self-aware that precious shooting days are passing by with relatively no narrative to hang his hat on, he prattles on through most of the first third soliciting ideas to spruce up the planned live performance that the film will culminate with.
At one point, Lindsay-Hogg has a brainstorm to film the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, with the audience shipped in from England on the QE2, but the lads won’t have it (I assume this vignette inspired the “Stonehenge” bit in This Is Spinal Tap). Interestingly, the 1972 Pink Floyd documentary Live at Pompeii included a live performance filmed at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy (interspersed with footage of the band working on Dark Side of the Moon in the studio, à la Let it Be).
Once the action moves to the basement of the Beatles’ Apple Corps offices, where a makeshift recording studio has been assembled, the band (and the film) begins to perk up considerably. With the deadline pressure of the now discarded TV special off the table, the band focuses on laying down some tracks, enlisting Glyn Johns as producer (George Martin is seen popping in and out of the sessions on occasion, but for the first time, he was not invited to be at the helm …which in hindsight was an unfortunate decision).
But it’s not until keyboard maestro Billy Preston joins the sessions that the band really begins to bring their “A” game. Ironically, Preston would have never been part of the equation had George not (temporarily) walked out of the project (“See you ‘round the clubs,” he deadpans to his stunned band mates before storming out of frame).
While on his hiatus, George hooked up with his pal Eric Clapton and attended a Ray Charles gig in London. Preston (who the Beatles had originally met on a 1962 tour with Little Richard) was playing organ in Charles’ band.
George invited Preston to hang out at the studio, and he ended up playing keys on several songs (most notably, “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down”), as well as sitting in on the rooftop set. At one point in the film, Paul asks Preston “Has anyone asked you yet if you mind coming in every day?” Preston beams like a beatific Buddha (as if someone is going to say “Fuck you…pay me” to an invitation to sit in with the Beatles!).
I was fascinated by the presence of gentle giant Mal Evans. An enigmatic member of the Beatles’ inner circle, Evans was their Man Friday; bodyguard, road manager, roadie, P.A., and apparently (as evidenced in one scene) an occasional co-lyricist.
In another scene, Evans registers childlike delight as he “plays” the hammer and anvil on an early run-through of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Evans was the person who “discovered” Badfinger and brought them to the Beatles’ attention-which got them signed to Apple. Sadly, in 1976 he was shot dead in his home by LAPD officers, who mistook his air rifle for a real weapon (Evans had been struggling with depression).
Spoiler alert: Jackson saves the iconic rooftop performance for the finale (as Lindsay-Hogg did in Let it Be…but how else could you end it?). Granted, it’s a long and winding road of “fly on the wall” observation to get there, but it makes the payoff of finally seeing the band perform several classic numbers in their entirety sound that much sweeter. For some, spending a day in the life with the Fabs may ultimately feel like it’s all too much …. but do you want to know a secret? I watched Get Back and thought: