Thursday, 24 February 2011

What the Swedish Butler Saw (1975)

What the hell was that then?

I love Diana Dors. She's gorgeous and brilliant in early films like Yield to the Night and grotesque and brilliant in later ones like The Amazing Mr Blunden. She went from playing pouting sex kittens to playing raddled old hags with no sign of pompousness or pretension and was fantastic as both. By 1975, though, all of that was behind her and she was reduced to supporting roles in crap sex comedies like The Amorous Milkman and Adventures of a Taxi Driver.

In some ways though I think this is the absolute nadir of her career and, frankly, a level to which she should never have been allowed to sink.

As wheelchair bound Madame Helena, proprietress of a brothel which appears in the film primarily to show off some rather unattractive girls with thin, saggy boobs, she thankfully only makes a couple of briefish cameos, but even those are a couple of cameos too many. More than other sex 'comedies' of the time (which at their best at least had a genuine sense of fun about them) this is an incompetent farce made incompetent people or - to be scrupulously fair - by people who are happy to serve up quickly shot, ineptly scripted, lowest common denominator fluff knowing that that will do just fine for their audience.

Largely told in voice over by the 'hero' (Ole Soltoft), and bizarrely featuring another cameo from Jack the Ripper of all people, the story, such as it, concerns a repressed Victorian lady with whom Soltoft wants to have sex. Creepily he does this by trying to drug her, then attempting to use a machine to pin her to a couch, and finally by tying her with ropes to the ceiling and attempting to rape her. Luckily (sic) she turns out to like all of this (as women do, naturally) and he gets his way in the end.

Diana Dors turns up at the beginning to get her girls to teach Soltoft the Kama Sutra, and then later on to convince him to ravish the lady. It's all pretty icky, not at all funny and as for Dors, I can only hope she was paid shed-loads of money to be in this abysmal rubbish.

One for the Dors completists only.

PS Apaprently this film is based on a Victorian sex novel called "The Way of a Man with a Maid". I mention this for informaiton sake only ;)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Hunky Dory (1971)

Ask any of your friends what their favourite David Bowie album is and chances are about half of them will plump for Hunky Dory (obviously all your friends will have a favourite Bowie album - how could they be your friends otherwise?). Even now, forty years and a couple of dozen albums later, there's still something about Hunky Dory which stands out, something truly special which makes the listener - both old and new - stop in sheer pleasure.

And that's actually just a wee bit surprising. Because if 'Width of a Circle' on the previous album was a Frankenstein of a track, this is the same mish-mash of styles and attitudes at entire album length. There genuinely is something for everyone on here, just as long as the everyone in question isn't looking for production line blandness. In the words of the always entertaining music critic Robert Christgau: on Hunky Dory Bowie "has a nice feeling for weirdos, himself included".

The title allegedly refers to Japanese brothels and the front cover is another of Bowie in drag - based on photos of Marlene Dietrich, though as a kid I always assumed it was meant to be Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. So it's fair to say that from the off we're not in Kansas here, nor was this album intended to sell to the same people who snapped up the latest Sweet record.

Tony Visconti had left to concentrate on Marc Bolan's career and for the first time ever Bowie was backed by the musicians who would make up the Spiders from Mars, as 'Woody' Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder joined Mick Ronson in just about the only backing band I can name individually. Bung in Ken Scott on co-production duties with Bowie (as 'the Actor' on the sleeve notes) and everything has changed.

Which laborious segue brings us to the music itself.

Hunky Dory has the best start of any Bowie album to date. 'Changes', describes the current situation for Bowie in one brilliant verse, wondering with bemusement what he's been waiting for, and why he ended up down 'a million dead end streets'. It's fantastic stuff, preceded by a short if genuinely funky intro and carried along on a sweet piano line, before sliding into a chorus in which he recognises the need to change himself and that change can be fascinating in itself.

As album openers go it was immediately bettered by 'Five Years' on Ziggy Stardust, but that aside there's little competition to it even in a catalogue as strong as Bowie's. As a statement of intent it's never been bettered anywhere.

From here on the album roller-coasters along both lyrically and musically. It's very easy to concentrate on the 'deep' songs with obvious 'meaning' and diverse and subtle layers but doing that means you miss so much about what makes this record truly great. Yes, 'Oh! You Pretty Things', manages the amazing trick of being a pretty pop song about Jesus and the Nietzschian Supermen, for instance, but it's the segue directly into 'Eight Line Poem', an actual pretty pop song about nothing much at all, which raises it to genius.

I've heard 'Andy Warhol', 'Queen Bitch' and 'Song for Bob Dylan' described as the weakest tracks on the album and even as the songs which 'ruin' it. And on first listen they do seem to be nothing more than throw away tributes and debts repaid ('Queen Bitch' is even subtitled 'Some VU White Light Returned with thanks') on the track-list but the first two are better rock tunes than any filler could ever be even if I'm forced to agree with David Buckley that 'Song for Bob Dylan' doesn't quite work. Incidentally, look out for Dana Gillespie's vocal on 'Andy Warhol', alongside Bowie and co as Arnold Corns (recorded live for Peel in 1971), to hear just how much of a viciously crunching track this actually was.

f there is any filler on the album it's in the folk rock pastiching 'Kooks' and the Biff Rose cover 'Fill Your Heart', but since they're both brilliant, who cares that they're not about anything. David Buckley seems to miss the point a little with these two tracks, calling 'Kooks 'twee' and 'fey' with 'cod precautionary lyrics', instead of seeing it as a valid throwback and fond farewell to the sort of songs the changed Bowie would now be leaving behind.

Which leaves the three songs which take a great album and raise it into the musical stratosphere. I suspect more has been written about 'Life on Mars' than any other Bowie track and it's topped at least one critics list of greatest songs of all time. It's got a stunning melody, a brilliantly obtuse lyric which constantly seems on the verge of meaning something and one of Bowie's very best vocal performances. Sufficient to say that it deserves every plaudit thrown its way over the years - if Bowie had only ever recorded this one track he'd still be remembered as a genius even now.

And it's not the best track on the album. Not even close.

For old school fans each side of the album ends with a long moment of utter brilliance. Even now I can still remember getting to 'Quicksand' at the end of side one, sitting on my bed in my black walled and ceilinged bedroom (sadly - due to carpet costing a lot to replace - I still had my sister's pink carpet thus ruining the effect somewhat). Fourteen years old or whatever and there's Bowie starting a song with

I'm closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley's uniform
Of imagery

then name-checking Himmler, Churchill, Bardot and Garbo. What the hell is this?! And that chorus:

Don't believe in yourself
Don't deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death's release

Bloody hell, that was strong stuff for me, far more bleak and scary than anything The Smiths or Nirvana ever conjured up, more like Joy Division than the then current Bowie album, Let's Dance. I'd have loved this song for the lyrics alone, but the melody rolled smoothly round your head like a snake and the whole stayed there for ages after the stylus lifted itself off the vinyl and returned to its resting place.

And that's not the best track on the album. Not even close.

'The Bewlay Brothers'. God alone knows what it's actually about because even Bowie isn't sure.

In 2008, after the release of Bowie at the Beeb which contained the first ever live version of the track, he said that "I wouldn't know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It's a palimpsest" and that seems a fairly reasonable summary. Like a manuscript from which all text has been scraped to allow re-use but where the old text still survives in parts to change the meaning of the new, the lyrics to 'The Bewlay Brothers' appear at times to be gibberish.

And yet...

Like some TS Eliot poems, there's a definite feeling even when just reading the lyric on the page that - if you just had the key or a set of footnotes - you could turn these beautiful sounds into something more than that, decipher the meaning behind the seeming jumble, turn the abstract poetry into a dramatic story.

Because this is as dramatic as popular music gets. Bowie's voice thunders and soars as it builds to one crescendo then another. It's lyrically very threatening actually, with junkies and stalkers, devils and monsters populating every line. A brother lies dead on the rocks (prompting some critics to suggest this is a song about schizophrenia and Bowier's half-brother Terry) and - tying in with Bowie's admission that he's a 'faker' in 'Changes' - someone else now thinks 'we were fakers' and Bowie admits 'we were gone'.

And then there's the perversity of Bowie's deranged changed pitch voiceover at the end

Lay me place and bake me pie
I'm starving for my gravy
Leave my shoes and door unlocked
I might just slip away

Paul Magrs was the first person to suggest to me that this is meant to be the Laughing Gnome and it's an idea that Charles Shaar Murray and Roy Carr agreed with in their book on Bowie. It's an appealing idea and if that was the intention then it just adds another layer of creepy to the entire affair and ends the song in as dark and terrifying a place as Bowie ever went before or after. It's an astonishing, gob-smacking achievement and one of the genuinely shattering moments in popular music. I'd say that I loved it, but I love a lot of songs - 'The Bewlay Brothers' is in a league all of its own.

I'm not sure if Hunky Dory is my favourite Bowie album, but it's up there and even after hearing it a thousand times I'm still delighted to hear it again.

That's unusual enough in itself to make it something worth you (both of you!) listening at least once.

The Great Missing Track

'Bombers', I suppose. Which is a nice enough song, but it'd just be another biut of filler, and a bit more trite and shallow and naive than anything else on the album. Worth getting on whichever cd release of Hunky Dory it popped up on, but really - everything brilliant that could have appeared on this album did appear on this album..

Spotify: David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Current Reading, dispersed round the house

We've been decorating like mad round ours for the past week or two. People have been flooding the house at all hours, building walls and putting up kitchens and moving radiators and every other peace and quiet ruining thing you can do in a house.

As a result, my 'study' (for which read sort of corridor space with a cupboard on one side and bookcases on the other) has been used as a dumping ground for anything which needs taken out of the way of various tradesmen. Which means also that my usual pile of books I'm reading has been disturbed and the various individual titles scattered round the house like a papery Key to Time.

All of which really brought home to me what a lot of books I have going at the same time. Just from last week I'm part way through (in one case just finished, tbh):
  • Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy (Tony Visconti's autobiography - fascinating and full of great anecdotes but also full of real dribbling nonsense about ghost and auras and the like).
  • Memories, Grave and Gay (a memoir published in 1904 by a former Scottish Schools Inspector -odd thought that this book, which I think of as being 'modern' since it was published in the 20th century, is about a period closer to the Jacobite Rebellion than today)
  • The Fires of Fu Manchu (continuation of Sax Rohmer's series by his friend Cay Van Ash - there is another in the series which also features Sherlock Holmes, which Paul reckons is even better)
  • Connections (chick lit short story collection by Sheila O'Flanagan which is more amusing than most even for a neanderthal like myself)
  • Kobayashi Maru (pretty standard Star Trek fayre, though since it's about the awesome first ENTERPRISE crew, it's better than most)
  • WG Grace's Last Case (Willie Rushton penned pre-cursor to Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - just started this and it's brilliant)
  • Mystery Mile (one of the several Campion's I haven't read - good as ever)
  • From Hell (a re-read of the graphic novel, after recommending it the other day)
plus sundry other things - Faction Paradox short stories, sitcom script books, Senor 105 proof collections and so on - either on the ebook reader or for occasional dipping into beside my bed.

Is this a normal style of reading, I wonder? I bet it is for anyone who really likes to read, after all you need to have something to read close to hand at all times...

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Man Who Sold the World (1970)

Morrisey described this as Bowie's best album, but that was in the Foreword to producer Tony Visconti's autobiography, so he can be fogiven for minor exaggeration. But no less an authority than Charles Shaar Murray reckons this is where the Bowie story really begins, so maybe Moz has a point.

What's inarguable, I think, is that this is the first great Bowie album. From here on there's a ten year period of unparalleled musical innovation. One triumph follows another as Bowie invents Glam, drops it in favour of popularising electronica, throws that over for white soul in a cocaine haze, before coming back to Major Tom in 1980 with Scary Monsters. There's nothing in popular music which even comes close to this. Dylan manages as long a run of uninterrupted great albums, but there' s not the same variation, and the Beatles didn't produce half as many great albums nor did they have - for all the genius at work - the same scope. Nobody else even gets within a mile of Bowie.

So is Morrissey right about Man Who Sold the World then?

Well, no. It's the start of a brilliant run, and the first evidence of creative genius, but it's not, I think, as brilliant as some of the albums which followed it, nor is it the leap that Bowie needed to make.

There are still obvious lyrical and stylistic links to the earlier David Bowie albums for a start. I love 'All the Madmen' and 'After All' but they could have slipped onto Space Oddity without so much as a note or line change. Tracks like 'Running Gun Blues', 'The Supermen' and 'Saviour Machine' while far heavier musically than earlier recordings, are lyrically at least still in the same universe as 'Little Bombadier' or 'We Are Hungry Men'.

But there's the difference, I suppose. Musically this is a different universe altogether.

Picture me as a thirteen year old boy putting this LP on for the first time (and spot the black and white Ziggy picture on the cover sleeve as I slip the LP out - another bit of marketing mis-direction compared to the original image of Bowie recling on a settee in a dress!), being a little surprised at the wailing feedback which starts 'Width of a Circle', then re-assured by the acoustic guitars which quickly replace it as Bowie starts singing about mythical monsters and talking blackbirds (pre-internet, I had no idea what the blackbird quipped though!).

And then Mick Ronson intervenes.

Christ almighty. Whatever else this album might be, it was pretty evident that it wasn't Space Oddity II. Eight minutes of multiple guitars and apparently meaningless lyrics , the music stopping and re-starting, moving up and down in volume like a knackered lift, massive echoing guitar solos, funky bass lines and sudden unexpected tempo changes, this was an enormous Frankenstein of a track, literally like nothing I had ever heard before, an entire album's worth of ideas poured into a single track. And this was only the opener!

That level's not sutainable, of course, and that's probably for the best. The next track, 'All the Madmen', is a whimsical, if creepier, throwback to earlier times as is 'After All' on the same side of LP. As an aside, when I was fourteen or fifteen I entered the Ryman short story writing competition with a story about a thinly disguised Doctor Who entering his own head and meeting his previous incarnations before finally talking to Jesus (I know, I know, you don't have to tell me). I called the story "All the Madmen", but I nearly called it "Demented Man" after the Hawkwind song - these Bowie ballads could have slipped on a Hawkwind album fo the period without any really noticing.

But back to the music. 'Shook Me Cold' starts with one of the best guitar sounds ever and heads off into new territory of hammering guitar and drums. And the lyric is quite obviously not about gnomes or nursery rhymes, pitiful ex-soldiers or cups of tea - it's most definitely about sex. And 'Black Country Rock' is pure heavy metal; a big, bad bastard of a song.

The rest of the album is pretty clearly a transitional set of numbers. The same sort of songs as stories approach as David Bowie, in particular, but with a science fiction bent that looks forward to Ziggy and Aladdin Sane and with the heavier sound of the post-Hunky Dory years. If it can sometimes sound a little bit silly sounding from the vantage point of forty years later, that's all forgiven when you listen to the title track, where a repetitive guitar line plays over an almost calypso guitar and Bowie comes up with his best lyric to date, sung over one of his best melodies. So good it was covered by Lulu and Nirvana, 'The Man Who Sold the World' would have qualified this album for greatness even without 'Width of a Circle' and the others.

Maybe Mozza had a point, after all?

The Great Missing Track

In reality it should be 'Lightning Frightening', since that's the track which was actually left off this album, if I remember right, but the far better'Shadowman', which was recorded the following year in reality can stand in for it. Too proto-Ziggy for Hunky Dory (from where it actually was omitted), it should have appeared on some Bowie album of the period and is well worth looking out on whatever Rykodisc re-issue it turned up on.

Spotify: David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World

Incidentally, it was the fourteen minute version of 'Width of a Circle' on Ziggy Stardust - The Motion Picture which I first heard - and it's even more awesome than the studio version.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Long Weekend

My pal Scott likes to come up with a meme every New Year that he casts out onto the Internet in hopes of starting a fad. Last year it was make up an Amazon Basket of great books for under £50 or something, this year it's make a Spotify Playlist with a song which reminds you of every year of your life. I was actually tempted to do the latter - and I may yet - but I can barely remember last week half the time so it seemed more trouble than it was worth.

What did pop into my head though was the idea of books that bring certain periods to mind. Like I mentioned the other day, the mobile library reminds me so much of being a kid, looking through the net curtains in the kitchen, waiting for the library to pull up in our square, then the dash downstairs and back up with the permitted three books in my hands.

But certain books remind me of far more specific times.

Just before I left University, I was involved in the death throes of a relationship that had lasted me since the first week of second year. We'd drifted apart, as you do when you're twenty, and though we were still going out officially, we were really just friends. She'd got a room in a flat in town though, right above the old James Thins Bookshop and I'd gone round one Friday night after the pub. Next day we lay in bed all day, hungover, reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books, one after the other, in order. When I finished one I'd give it to her and then quickly get dressed, nip downstairs to buy the next one, then head back for bed.

All weekend we did that, following Laura from the Big Woods of Wisconsin, to Plum Creek and Silver Lake, then into town at Walnut Grove. It felt like watching a great long rambling movie, or a soapy mini-series - but one filled with right-wing Christian Americans, hating the Injuns and Big Government and loving the flag and self-sufficiency.

Laura lost in a blizzard and Pa on the march for work, the Long Winter and Mary going blind, Laura marrying Almanzo and then watching him cripple himself in a storm - over that long weekend we saw all of this unfold, buoyed up with innumerable cups of tea and hundreds of Malboro cigarettes.

And then, suddenly, almost unexpectedly, the books were finished and so were we...

Friday, 11 February 2011

David Bowie: Space Oddity (1969)

The one undeniable fact about early David Bowie is that he was an ambitious bugger. Nowadays he'd turn up on X Factor, and even back in 1969 he sometimes gave the impression of being willing to do anything to get in the spotlight. If the Next Big Thing back than had been Al Jolsen, you can be pretty sure this album would have been called 'Mammy' and featured a seated Bowie in blackface doing jazz hands to the camera!

As it is, the album perfectly encapsulates two elements of Bowie-dom.

First, having backed the wrong horse at the wrong time with his half-hearted stab at English whimsical psychedelia with his debut album, on this LP he strays into Tim Hardin style introspective singer songwriter territory, baring his soul for £1.49 a copy with an admirable cynicism. It's clear that the record company also bought into this sea change in direction. In the UK the album was originally called David Bowie, the same eponymous title as his debut album two years previously, indicating that the label saw this new album as a chance to relaunch a promising career and consign an embarrassing mis-start to the bin. In the US, the album title was Man of Words, Man of Music and featured a permed, hippy Bowie on the cover, in the style of Tim Buckey's Happysad and innumerable other albums by young men with issues. A relaunch on one side of the Atlantic (the side where people might actually have bought the first David Bowie LP) and a re-imagining as a wordy troubadour on the other (where hardly anyone had bought that first abortive album).

All of which ended up moot because after the success of 'Space Oddity' the single, it was re-issued by RCA as Space Oddity the album, complete with misleading - in every sense - Ziggy era Bowie image on the front and back. It's commonplace to claim that Bowie's great gift has always been to spot the coming thing and then get in there first, but at this point he's still reacting, still a follower, hitching his wagon to the latest fad and failing as yet to find a voice of his own.

Which isn't to say this is a poor album. Far from it. But were you to be playing that game of deciding which artist has had the longest run of consecutive truly great albums, you'd have to be a real optimist to claim this as the first of Bowie's (that wouldn't come for one - maybe even two - more albums). There's some lovely songs on it, and some really excellent lines, but it's all a little derivative, a tiny bit contrived.

Example: 'Letter to Hermione', dedicated to Hermione Fortheringay, Bowie's estwhile lover. Maybe he was sufficiently distraught at the break-up to pen this pretty if self-pitying ode but it does feel a lot like a folksinger checklist sort of song, like a late sixties Phil Collins tugging on the heart strings.

Example: 'God Knows I'm Good', which couldn't more obviously be an older song pushed onto the album to take up space if Bowie had done it in an Anthony Newley voice. The last in a longish line of Bowie songs which tell a story in a naive and one dimensional manner I thought this was so sad when I was thirteen and find it painful to listen to now, which pretty much sums the track up for me.

Examples: 'Memories of a Free Festival' and 'Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud' - decent if cliched peace and love hymns, but cliched peace and love hymns nonetheless.

I don't want to give the impression I hate this record. Really far, far from it. I love it. I've listened to it literally hundreds and hundreds of times. 'Cygnet Committee' might even be the very first song on Bowie's path to the astonishing 'Bewlay Brothers' on Hunky Dory. But it's not a great album and no amount of dodgy marketing will ever make it into one.

It's an album of an artist looking for his own sound which, most importantly of all, marks the last time for over twenty years that Bowie tried to mimic the pack around him. As such it's probably the most important milestone in his career.

The Great Missing Track

Has to be 'Conversation Piece'. Recorded in 1969 (and re-recorded in better quality but inferior vocal for the Toy sessions), it's another one of those little vignettes Bowie has always done so well. I first heard it around 1983, when Stuart Dodds traded me a tape copy of a bootleg called 'BowieRarest' for a copy of an Ultravox album. I won there, I think.

Side one

  1. "Space Oddity" – 5:15
  2. "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" – 6:55
  3. "(Don't Sit Down)" * – 0:39
  4. "Letter to Hermione" – 2:28
  5. "Cygnet Committee" – 9:33

Side two

  1. "Janine" – 3:18
  2. "An Occasional Dream" – 2:51
  3. "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" – 4:45
  4. "God Knows I'm Good" – 3:13
  5. "Memory of a Free Festival" – 7:05

Thursday, 10 February 2011

All praise the t'internet...

I've been reading all sorts of little bits and pieces recently. Short books and easy reads, tv tie-ins and paperback novelisations, loads of the sorts of books which tend to accumulate in precarious piles in what I laughingly call my study, picked up for a penny plus postage from Amazon Marketplace or on eBay for a pound. Stuffed into second hand padded envelopes, sealed shut with masking tape and with my name scrawled over the top of somebody else's address in huge black felt-tip letters.

Which is one of the best things about the Internet actually. Once upon a time, books I vaguely remembered from my childhood remained forever beyond reach. There was no way of checking the exact title of that book about the two kids hiding in a museum, never mind actually owning a copy. And the only place to buy old books was in second hand book shops, a bus journey away, with no guarantee of anything beyond multiple copies of Catherine Cookson novels and little chance of the sort of thing I wanted to read - pulp science fiction and schlocky horror.

As a result I read and re-read the same 100 or so books over and over again, occasionally adding to that total via jumble sales and presents from relations. Come the internet though...

In the past week parcels have arrived with copies of old Fu Manchu novels, Secret Army novelisations, Sexton Blake short stories and Dads Army annuals. Last week brought a Roald Dahl, a biography of Peter Purves, a pile of magazines and a strange looking little book about killers on Victorian trains. All of which I'm currently reading in my usual half a dozen books at a time style ands which I'll probably mention on here over the next week or two.

And the insttant gratification of it all! Read a blog review of an ancient kids' book or the biography of an obscure 70s sitcom star and two clicks later you're on eBay or Abe or Amazon or Play, typing in your credit card details and buying the book. It may take a day or a fortnight to get into your hands but the ease of purchase and the speed is the thing - maybe it;s just me, but once it's bought I think of a book as mine even if I can't actually read it yet.

Best of all are those purchases you forget about until a bulky parcel arrive sin the postie's hand and it tunrns out to be a passing fancy you can't even remember buying. Bliss!

From the current pile of recent arrivals I just finished the Secret Army book, Kessler, which was excellent - very much John Brason's view of the character and series rather than the one strictly seen on screen but none the worse for that. The story is slight, to be honest, and secondary to a fascinating study of a fictional character who was so well written that it's far easier to believe in his actual existence than it is for many real Nazis in genuine history books. I'd probably never have got a copy of this from a secondhand bookshop - thank God for the internet...