Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Laserdisc Collecting: Crash (Japan, 1997, Herald Films)

I mentioned laserdiscs in a recent post and I thought it might be fun to kick off a series documenting some of the more interesting items in my collection. I should mention from the outset that these posts will not feature any technical information about transfers and so on – I don’t own a laserdisc player and have no interest in picking one up (a functioning machine is prohibitively expensive to get hold of these days), but if I can gleam some relevant information from the smattering of laserdisc review sites still out there, I will include it. What these posts will focus on is the art and design aspects of the laserdisc which is the raison d’être of my collection. And for this inaugural post, I’m going back to the beginning, to the first laserdisc I snagged on eBay, the Japanese edition of Crash. I’ve always been dissatisfied with home video presentations of David Cronenberg’s 1996 masterpiece, my old VHS edition and subsequent R2 DVD were content to use the over-familiar image of Holly Hunter straddling James Spader, indeed, the Criterion used this same image for their 1997 laserdisc. So it was quite a revelation to discover the Japanese edition and what a provocative and brilliant piece of design it is - the shot of Rosanna Arquette’s character seductively clad in fish-net tights and leg braces, and sporting a ravine of a scar captures much of the film’s transgressive sexuality in one single image.

Herald Films produced the Crash laserdisc for the Japanese home video market and it’s one of their more sleeker designs, the rear sleeve has a nice clear layout and features some sexually charged stills from the film (including that ubiquitous Hunter/Spader shot!). And I like the OBI strip which comes in luminous road-sign yellow, rather appropriate I think whether it was intended or not, and far more effective than the sleeve of the UK DVD which features faux road signs warnings - Crash Ahead, No Cuts and Open Soon (?)

The Japanese Crash is thankfully one of the more common titles still in circulation and one can pick this edition up quite cheaply. As ever prices fluctuate among eBay dealers but prepare to pay €20-€25 for this beauty. Incidentally, the Criterion edition remains the definitive laserdisc presentation of the film, transfer wise, but more importantly contains a typically excellent Cronenberg commentary which sadly has never been ported over to later DVD editions. However, if you're curious, the commentary can be downloaded here as an mp3 file...

Monday, 25 September 2017

Diabolus in Musica

Some infernal listening this morning... It's probably the best thing Keith Emerson has done, and while I'm not a fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, I do like some progressive rock stuff, so the more overblown excesses of the soundtrack - the Verdi re-write, the choral passages, I can take. I'd like to think Argento saw Emerson doing his famous stage act where he attacked his huge Hammond organ with knives, and thought "That's my man!" Inferno will always stand in the shadow of Suspiria but I find both films work as a terrific double-header. If Suspiria has the thrills and spills (and what incredible spills especially in the opening reel), Inferno is the more sensual of the two, and there are images in the film that profoundly resonates with me, like Irene Miracle's incredibly elegant, almost erotic pen-writing in the opening of the film, the descent into the water-logged basement, or the weird shot of the water rippling as Leigh McCloskey comes round after his fainting fit - images that are forever sketched on the wall of my memory. It's an extraordinary film... One final thought - what a shame Argento never commissioned Tangerine Dream to write a score. The music of Rubycon or Stratosfear combined with Argento's images could have been a match made in Heaven... and Hell.

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Great Crater

The weather in this part of the world has turned rather wintry these past few days, the promise of an Indian summer has been met with a definite chill in the air, so it’s appropriate that Robin Rimbaud’s latest Scanner album, The Great Crater should drop thru my letterbox on Wednesday courtesy of the excellent Italian Glacial Movements label. The Great Crater, a 49min concept album about a mysterious circular formation seen on the Antarctic ice sheet - a side effect of the continent’s rising temperatures, is one of the finest ambient isolationist albums I’ve heard in many years. This is very much a work with an intuitive understanding of its environment, the beautiful electronic textures unfold like huge empty expanses of white desert while thunderous low end vibrations, Penderecki style plucked strings and disquieting percussive effects suggest a subterranean world in disintegration. Listening to the album another great work of frozen ambient drift came to mind, Thomas Köner’s Nuuk but I think I prefer The Great Crater, it feels more panoramic, immense and perhaps appropriately enough, warmer. Glacial Movements have given the album a fine release, the CD’s exquisite art direction was overseen by Rutger Zuydervelt (aka Machinefabriek) and the album’s title is embossed, crater-like, on the front of the fold-out digipak - a very nice touch. Incidentally, I listened to the album last night whilst leafing thru David Wilson’s excellent coffee table book The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott, and the century old vistas of Scott’s trips to Antarctica made for an excellent visual companion…

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Sign of the Surfer

This won't mean much to you if you're not a reader of The Galaxy's Greatest Comic, but here's some nice scribbling on display near my home – one sprayer’s homage to 2000AD’s Marlon Shakespeare aka Chopper, Mega-City One’s Midnight Surfer, complete with Chopper's trademark smiley face - evidently, Acid House made a comeback in the 22nd century ! But good to see the vicious young hoodlums paying their respects to the sacred texts of my youth.

Putting this post together jogged a long forgotten memory of a trip to Italy many years ago and a photograph of your humble narrator posing in front of a wall which had MONDO CANE spray-painted in large letters. When I saw this piece of graffiti I immediately thought of  Jacopetti and Prosperi's genre-defining 1962 film, but I doubt the artist responsible had quite the same thing in mind...

Monday, 28 August 2017

Rewind, press play, fast-forward...

Back in 2012, I took part in a Q & A series on film collecting, with contributors waxing lyrical about their film collection. I just happened to cruise by the website earlier and I see the series has been taken offline so I'm re-posting it here. I've made a few adjustments to the text, removing some outdated information, and adding some new info to bring it up to date...


In 1989 I was 12 and was given my very first film on VHS, an anonymous sounding film-clip compilation entitled The Best of Martial Arts, presented and narrated by John Saxon, which showcased various Golden Harvest films - Bruce Lee classics, ninja films, Jackie Chan comedies and so on. My primary interest though was Horror and Science Fiction. I was an avid reader of 2000AD from the age of 6 or 7 and by the time I reached my teens I was gravitating towards adult Horror. I have cherished memories of long summer afternoons spent behind closed curtains watching the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, The Fly, Phantasm II (it would be a few years yet before I saw the original), Re-Animator and Day of the Dead. The first film I bought on VHS was undoubtedly the big-box New World edition of Hellraiser, from my local videoshop for the princely sum of 10 Irish pounds. I'm sure it never occurred to me that I could have bought a brand new sell-through copy for the same price at HMV. Fast forward to May 1992 and Dark Side magazine's Video Nasties issue appears, a pivotal moment in my film watching life that would change the map of Horror forever...


The first decade of film collecting was VHS. Collecting Horror on video here in Ireland demanded patience and perseverance. The Video Nasties round-up wasn't quite so severe here, only a small amount of headline-grabbing titles were pulled off the shelves to satisfy moral outrage, but with fewer tapes in circulation, one had to spend hours of detective work sifting through grotty video shops looking for banned titles, and uncut pre-cert rarities. But even as late as the mid-90's I was finding the odd bit of buried treasure - Thorn EMI's uncut edition of  Suspiria, hard to find pre-cert titles like The Blood-Spattered BrideThe Crazies and Martin, Intervision tapes like The Exterminator and Poor White Trash, curios like The Jesus Trip and Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, and the occasional Video Nasty - The BurningNightmares in a Damaged Brain, Blood Bath, I Spit On Your Grave and Gestapo's Last Orgy...

Another important source came from a more underground connection. I knew someone who sold dupes of Cult, Exploitation and Video Nasty titles and had no qualms about selling his wares to geeky teenagers. These tapes came in color photocopied sleeves and were mastered from tapes that were usually degraded to an inch of their life, all swarming tracking lines and random color shifts, but after handing over £6 per tape (or 3 for £15!), I was finally seeing the likes of Cannibal Holocaust, Last House on the Left, Snuff and hard-to-see exotica like Nekromantik, Bloodsucking Freaks and New York Ripper (letterboxed with Dutch subtitles!). To my huge regret most of my tapes, originals and dupes are long gone. By 2001 I had transitioned from VHS to DVD, and consigned the bulk of  my tapes to the trash just because DVD was so superior. Who knew that The Devils would take 12 years to come out ?  Nevertheless, the sun had firmly set on VHS, and I remember well the seismic event of Pioneer's DVD edition of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre arriving through my letterbox from the US in 2001. DVD coupled with online shopping was a revolution in terms of film collecting, and I was fortunate that those frenzied years of DVD buying dovetailed with an era of strong Euro-to-Dollar rate, cheap shipping from the US and relaxed customs controls - none of which are true today.

It's interesting that in this era of high-definition presentations I've become increasingly preoccupied with laserdisc, and in the last few years I've been putting together a modest collection. I don't have a laserdisc player but I find this dead format strangely seductive, indeed fetishistic, and I do enjoy seeking out laserdisc editions that came with vintage or exclusive artwork. And oddly enough I find myself collecting VHS again, in recent weeks I've picked up a copy of Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and Mario Bava's Shock on VHS, both for their wonderful artwork.


I don't have a whole lot of rarities on DVD, perhaps a few titles that have gone out of print in recent years - Anchor Bay's DVD of Cockfighter immediately comes to mind, and Barrel's DVD of Last House on Dead End Street which came in an attractive fat-boy case adorned with terrific artwork by Stephen Bissette. I'm quite fond of some European discs I've picked up over the years - the German edition of What Have They Done To Your Daughters ? and two Camera Obscura titles, Terror Express and Mondo Candido. Boxset wise, I like to show off my Raro boxset of Andy Warhol films, and Potemkine's massive 52-disc Eric Rohmer collection. And I've been fortunate to score a number of Arrow special editions - Videodrome, Phenomena, and I'm particularly proud that I was part of the crowd-funding campaign for the Walerian Borowczyk Collection.  I've been lucky too to land some very nice Japanese laserdiscs, and most recently I picked up a copy of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things laserdisc, a very limited run signed by Bob Clarke and Alan Ormsby. And I must mention the 2008 documentary entitled Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky which I bought on DVD from the director Dmitry Trakovsky who included a handwritten letter thanking me for the interest in the film and explaining his ideas and motivation in making the film - a very nice touch.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Music of the Night (of the Living Dead)

For a non-musician, the closest thing to composing a score is working a good set of library tracks into your picture”…

George Romero, as quoted on the sleeve of the 1982 Varèse Sarabande soundtrack edition of Night of the Living Dead. I’m currently enjoying the music of Romero’s great film - not exactly the kind of music fitting a bright summer’s morning, but I’m working a hectic 16-hour work shift today and the sturm und drang of Romero and Karl Hardman’s selections seem entirely appropriate. I’ve read that it was Hardman who applied the subtle electronic shading to the cues, which may account for some distortion heard on the tracks, but it makes for a far more eerie musical landscape than any conventional score could provide (fascinating to think what Louis and Bebe Barron might have come up with). The stand out track here is the final number, a mournful violin refrain credited to Spencer Moore, but crucially treated with some echo and used to powerful effect in the film over a disturbing photo montage of dead bodies. This edition of the soundtrack also includes a sampling of some of the more famous dialogue in the film and while I normally find such a thing intrusive, it’s always a treat to hear George Kosana say “They’re dead, they’re… all messed up”. The liner notes on the sleeve of the Varèse Sarabande LP mention other films that have shared Night of the Living Dead’s music – Terror from the Year 5000 (1958), The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959) and unmentioned here, The Killer Shrews (1959). I can’t recall the exact cue used in the film, but I had that distinct feeling of déjà vu whilst watching season 1 of Naked City

Worth mentioning too, an additional Night of the Living Dead soundtrack album entitled They Won't Stay Dead from 2010 which gathers as many cues and effects as possible from the film. Unfortunately it's currently OOP but worth keeping an eye on Discogs...

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Carnival of Souls

Just seeing some news that Criterion UK are releasing their Blu-Ray of Carnival of Souls just in time for Halloween, and while I warmly welcome this release, it’s probably best to say nothing about the hideous artwork. With that in mind, I’ve been looking at artwork and designs used for theatrical and home video editions of the film over the years. It’s frustrating that very few of the designs do justice to Herk Harvey and John Clifford’s evocative film, perhaps it was simply too difficult to market. I’ve never been fond of the film’s original poster (which fronted Criterion’s terrific 2001 DVD), the credited artist F. Germain includes all the familiar elements of the film, but unwisely imagines Candace Hilligoss’ character as some sort of 19th century saloon girl. The woman-in-peril theme reoccurs thru most subsequent US video releases, usually the shot of Hilligoss emerging from the car accident looking dazed and distressed, but it’s two British releases that have come up with something different. From 1991, Graham Humphreys’ exquisite b/w design for Palace Video, taps into the film’s nightmarish expressionism, and I love the inclusion of the keyboard of the organ, an integral element of the film.

The other design created for the film’s original theatrical run in the UK is also very striking, quite unlike any other design I’ve seen, looking more akin to one of Hammer’s psychological thrillers made in the wake of Psycho. Interestingly, this was a Tony Tenser release my initial thought was that it was marketed with Repulsion in mind but after consulting with John Hamilton’s Tenser/Tigon book Beasts In The Cellar it seems this was not the case. Information about the film's UK exhibition is rather sketchy. BBFC records list the film's submission for examination as June 1964, but Hamilton's book suggests the film was not publicly unveiled until May 1967 when it supported Tigon's debut film, a sexploitation item called Mini Weekend at the Jacey Cinema in London. And furthermore no evidence suggests the film had any additional playdates, it was not covered in the usually reliable Monthly Film Bulletin, and I have not seen any additional advertising material for the film. All very mysterious !

Monday, 17 July 2017

George A. Romero (1940 – 2017)

Waking up to very sad news this morning that George Romero has passed away at 77 after a short battle with lung cancer. This is hard news to take, Night of the Living Dead, Martin, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are four sturdy pillars that my love of Horror Cinema rests upon. I haven’t been keeping up with Romero in recent times, every now and then I would hear speculation that a new Living Dead film was emerging but after half-hearted engagements with Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, I figured Romero had followed the terminal decline of Dario Argento and John Carpenter. Better to bask in the warmth of the classics than suffer the diminishing returns of Bruiser or Survival of the Dead (both of which I still haven’t seen). But all that fades from view now, Romero leaves behind a tremendous body of work. That would be true had he simply made the four films mentioned above, but Romero also gave us The Crazies, Creepshow and Knightriders, and there are films that I’m eager to go back and revisit – Jack’s Wife, Monkey Shines, and Romero’s half of Two Evil Eyes. Jack’s Wife is an especially intriguing prospect – I saw the film back in the 90’s when it screened on Channel 4 and strongly disliked it. But this was long before my tastes developed matured (and before I discovered Ingmar Bergman!) and now that I’m roughly the same age as the titular character, I feel much better placed to appreciate what Romero was trying to do. I’ve only mentioned Romero’s films up to this point, and rightly so – I hate it when people sentimentalize the passing of remote, unknowable public figures, but in Romero’s case, I think I can grieve for the man he was. By all accounts he was an absolute gentleman, listening to his commentary tracks one gets a measure of his kindness, warmth, humor, the way he remembers his films like they were extended family outings. He remains always a joy to listen to. In Martin, I see Romero’s tenderness and humanity towards a character struggling with mental health issues. I look at Romero’s courageous casting of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, a black actor given the role of a strong, resourceful and defiant man (and defiantly smacking a bothersome white man), at a time when Civil Rights was still a tinderbox within American society. When asked about it, Romero would always shrug it off and insist that Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the job, but it’s hard to believe that Romero and his partners at The Latent Image didn’t discuss the political ramifications of their decision. For me George Romero’s greatest legacy was perfectly encapsulated by my friend and film-maker John Mulvaney earlier today: "Watching the likes of Night of the Living Dead, Martin and Dawn of the Dead still gives me urge to want to just go out there and make art, irregardless of budget, or what popular culture dictates."

Filming Night of the Living Dead, 1968

With Stephen King and Richard Rubinstein on the set of Creepshow, 1982

Playing an FBI agent alongside Charles Napier and Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs,1991

Filming The Dark Half, 1993

Filming Land of the Dead, 2005

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A scare at bedtime

A marauding, enraged giant, a child-snatching goblin, a nana-eating wolf and an unstoppable pot of oozing porridge - the stuff that nightmares are made of... My 20-month daughter tends to dictate most of my reading these days – her current faves are Daisy Duck, Little Lamb and the unputdownable Puppy Dog, and it has me reflecting on Ladybird’s Well Loved Tales series which I loved as a child. I haven’t thought about these books in well over 30 years so it was a treat to discover a page containing scans of the various covers. Ladybird have re-issued the series many times over the years but the original artwork courtesy of Eric Winter and Robert Lumley has rarely been bettered. I’ve always cited 2000AD as the origins of my love of Fantasy and Horror, but I wonder was something already stirring in those early years with the help of those Ladybirds ? Even now, looking at the cover for The Magic Porridge Pot, I can feel a little frisson of panic, perhaps an ancient buried memory of fooling around with a sink and gushing taps beyond my control… Check out the Well-Loved Tales series here

As I was putting this post together, I was reminded of Cinema's first adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk made by Edwin S. Porter in 1902. Over a century later, it looks undeniably stagey and primitive - the camera is locked down and distant, and the special effects, rudimentary, but this 10min film is remarkable in two respects. Firstly, the concept of a narrative cinema can be seen slowly emerging from the film - unlike many silent films from the era which were little more than brief sketches of everyday life, Porter's film has a definite story structure. The film has no intertitles and was most likely made before intertitles were introduced (Porter's own film Uncle Tom's Cabin is said to be one of the earliest uses of intertitles, in 1903) but Porter sticks closely to the folktale so audiences could follow the story. The second important aspect of the film was that it showed how Cinema could transcend theatre. Porter was able to bend space and time with a simple edit, and the film's optical effects, create a kind of magic that could not be replicated on the stage. This charming film can be viewed here

Tuesday, 27 June 2017


My latest round of obsessive listening comes courtesy of David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label and their new compilation of Alice Coltrane devotional music recorded in the 80’s and 90’s. Despite one track sharing its title with her 1971 masterpiece Journey In Satchidananda, this collection of Ecstatic Music, taken from three self-released albums Divine Songs (1987), Infinite Chants (1990) and Glorious Chants (1995) has little to do with Alice’s signature astral jazz music; on the face of it, the blend of Tangerine Dream-esque synths, Eastern instrumentation and Krishna chants and mantras would be more in line with New Age, that most loathed of musical genres. But it’s good to have your prejudices trashed once in a while, and in some considerable style too - the music Alice composed primarily for an audience of religious devotees and scholars at the Vedantic Center, located in the hills of Santa Monica, is absolutely spellbinding, radiating the warmth and joy of American Gospel, and the sublime spacey futurism of analogue electronica. Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson are well known Alice fans (the closing track on sunnO)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions album is named after her) and I wonder were the long funereal Wurlitzer drones on the aforementioned Journey To Satchidananda (the slight variation on the names is noted) an inspiration for the opening track on the live Dømkirke album ? As well as extraordinary music, the album also serves as a rare outing for Alice’s gorgeous bluesy, yearning voice which alone marks these recordings as essential. World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda is available on all formats, (the CD and 2LP come with extensive liner notes) and can be sampled over at the dedicated bandcamp page

Friday, 16 June 2017


Continuing the theme of last year’s Bloomsday post...  I’m always on the lookout for interesting and unusual cover designs for Ulysses, and I very much like Kirsty White’s cover for Penguin’s 2011 Annotated Student edition. Pictorial views of Dublin in the early 20th century are de rigueur for art directors tasked with presenting Joyce’s masterwork but it’s nice to see an artist given the opportunity to present original work. I haven't seen a cover this striking since Richard Hamilton’s 1985 etching The Transmogrifications of Bloom, used on various editions of the Oxford World Classics series, and I particularly like that the artist has included little references to the book within the drawing - thoughtfully color-coded for the reader to puzzle over. And the framing device of the drawing, a faux supplement of the Freeman's Journal newspaper (where Leopold Bloom sells advertising space), is rather ingenious too, in fact I initially assumed the design was adapted from an actual illustration from that paper. (Click here for a large scan of the cover)

Thursday, 8 June 2017

400 Beats That

I shouldn’t let June slip by without saying something about The Wire magazine which celebrates its 400th issue this month. Putting out a magazine of any kind is a Herculean task, but for a publication, which has for most of its tenure dealt with experimental and marginal music to reach 400 issues is something significant. I picked up my first copy of The Wire back in 1996 when the October issue devoted an article to Throbbing Gristle, and I’ve been buying it ever since. If that unwieldy stack in the pic below looks impressive, my collection is still short about 100 issues from the magazine’s early years when it was primarily a Jazz journal, bearing the immortal strapline: Jazz, Improvised Music and.....

I picked up a few issues here and there from the early years, (and worth noting that this era featured some exquisite photography) but it was the arrival of the millennium that saw The Wire really hit its stride (at least for this reader), as every new issue would see my album collection expand in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions. It was through the good offices of The Wire that I discovered the music of Sun Ra, AMM, Evan Parker, Fela Kuti, John Fahey, Tod Dockstader, Phill Niblock to name but a few. The magazine's championing of The Grateful Dead, King Crimson, John Martyn, even James Brown, artists that I previously had only a casual interest in, inspired me to delve deeper into their output. I heard Coil for the first time through The Wire, when in 2000, an early draft of A Cold Cell appeared on the 6th installment of the magazine's cover mounted CD series The Wire Tapper. To borrow a phrase from Cornelius Cardew, this was the time of The Great Learning.

If The Wire seems less vital in these recent times, it is perhaps a consequence of this reader not having the time to keep up with the endless flow of new music that emerges every month, but I must admit I've become increasingly frustrated by the magazine’s unfortunate inclination for fussy scholarly writing. The most recent offender, Philip Clarke's overview of Lou Reed's RCA & Arista Album Collection, in issue 397 in which the author couched the review in esoteric musicological language ("plagal cadences" and so on) was virtually unreadable. And yet I still eagerly buy it every month, usually rushing to grab one of the four or five copies my newsagents stocks. Incidentally, I had my name mentioned in The Wire back in 2012, albeit in the letters page when a tongue-in-cheek complaint about the previous issue's cover was fired off to the amused editor, who published it much to my dismay...

Friday, 2 June 2017

What is Blade Runner ?

"A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. New climate, recreational facilities.....absolutely free. Use your new friend as a personal body servant or a tireless field hand - the custom tailored genetically engineered humanoid replicant designed especially for your needs. So come on America, let's put our team up there...."

Quoted from the Blade Runner FAQ... I was rooting around some film magazines over the weekend when I discovered to my delight, a dog-eared copy of the Blade Runner FAQ bulking out an old Empire magazine. Compiled back in the early 90’s, the 70-odd page FAQ was a treasure trove of Blade Runner lore, crammed with fascinating facts, trivia and answers to those niggly questions the film poses (Was the Unicorn sequence taken from Legend ? What is the significance of the chess game?) Back in 1993, the BR FAQ felt like it was beamed from the future – my older brother, working at Motorola at the time printed me a copy from that mysterious newfangled thing known as the Internet, and for years the FAQ served as my Blade Runner Bible, endlessly read cover to cover up to its retirement with the arrival of Paul Sammon’s definitive chronicle of the film, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (which seems to be out of print these days). I’m looking thru an online version of the original FAQ now and enjoying the minutiae that easily slips the mind, like the association of each of the characters with an animal: Leon (Turtle), Roy (Wolf, Dove), Zhora (Snake), Rachel (Spider), Tyrell (Owl), Sebastian (Mouse), Pris (Raccoon), Deckard (Sushi (raw fish), unicorn). Morphology? Longevity? Incept dates? Answers here...

Friday, 26 May 2017

Not me at all

Reading an old issue of Uncut (#148, Sept 2009) over breakfast this morning and the centerpiece of the issue is an article celebrating The Beatles influence on culture in the form of 69 fascinating and sometimes fanciful factoids. I generally consider Uncut writers to a reliable bunch of scribes, but shame on the usually reliable David Cavanagh for reprinting that old howler that David Bowie recorded a cover of Penny Lane for the cut-price Music For Pleasure label in those hungry pre-fame days. I think I first read about the Penny Lane rumor in Nicholas Pegg’s excellent 2002 Complete David Bowie compendium (found in the Apocrypha section), so clearly Uncut dropped the ball on this one. I was debating on whether to post the offending cover version here - God forbid someone might skim over the post and shrug “Bowie covered Penny Lane ? That’s interesting” and propagate the myth further, but for the sake of completeness, you can listen to it here. David Cavanagh seems to have been thoroughly hoodwinked by this, writing "Note the hilarious out of time trumpet and Bowie's northern accent..." - as you will note, the vocalist, identified by Record Collector's Chris Groom as one Tony Steven, sounds nothing like the Deram-era Bowie. The Penny Lane cover first appeared on the Hits '67, one of those innocuous budget compilations that were designed squarely for the indiscriminate listener and his pitiable portable picnic player (12 Top Hits Superbly Recorded promises the front cover Can you tell the difference between these and the original sounds ?)

Incidentally, the album's entry over at Discogs includes a comment that explodes the myth, which is just as well - a seller is currently offering a copy of the album for the king's ransom of £15...

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s latest film where a couple are making out in a shower unaware that the alien creature is closing in for the kill, and watching this scene I had a momentary flashback to those Alien knock-offs that New World put out in the early 80’s – Forbidden World or Galaxy of Terror, take your pick. I can’t recall with certainty if such a scene exists in either of those Roger Corman productions, but that feeling of deja-vu is indicative of the problem of Alien: Covenant – watching the film last night I couldn’t escape the sense that I’d walked this ground many times before. Perhaps it was the side-lining of Giger’s alien for Prometheus that prompted the screenwriters of Covenant to get the series back on track so to speak, and while the face-hugger and xenomorph return in all their slithering, salivating glory, the film is simply content to fall back on familiar plot lines and ideas from the earlier films – lest we think we’re not watching an Alien film this time round. In fact the first hour of the film is essentially a remake of the 1979 film - an awkward and disorientating deux ex machina in the opening reel has the Covenant crew finding their way to the derelict spacecraft, where the film plunges into similar territory mined, unlikely as it seems by David Fincher’s much maligned sequel, while the climax, shamelessly lifts Ripley’s rescue from the infernal processing station in Aliens. Even the power loader makes a cameo of sorts. Ultimately the film feels like a disposable greatest hits package, or at one point, greatest misses - the first appearance of Michael Fassbender’s mad scientist David, draped in a monastic cloak put in mind Vincent Ward’s rejected concept for Alien 3. Perhaps most disappointing though is how underwhelming the visuals are. I made a rare excursion to the cinema to see the film (I regretted not seeing Prometheus on as large a screen as possible) but there’s little touch of the epic that made the preceding film so enjoyable, flawed as it was. Apart from one large impressive Roger Dean-style vista, the landscapes are surprisingly non-descript. One final note – the film has a sting in the tail that sets up yet another sequel, but if you know your Star Trek The Next Generation, and the S1 ep Datalore, you’ll have figured it out long before the denouement is revealed...

Friday, 12 May 2017

Bless the rains down on Arrakis

Listening to the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Dune and musing on Toto’s unlikely involvement with the film. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a satisfactory explanation how Toto got this gig, although the group’s chief songwriter David Paich suggests in the liner notes penned for the 1997 PEG Recordings edition of the soundtrack (which contains only Toto music), that he essentially auditioned for the scoring job when he visited David Lynch in Mexico and handed him a demo tape of proposed music, the deal finally sealed over a mutual love of Shostakovich’s 11th symphony. I had a plan to listen to some of Toto’s early albums in preparation for this post, but I balked at the idea of listening to anything cut from the same cloth as Rosanna or Africa. And yet, the music Toto wrote and recorded with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is frequently stunning, far removed from the slick, soft rock the group is largely known for, from epic brooding orchestral passages to short synth driven numbers, and quiet introspective atmospheres, which mesh very nicely with Brian Eno’s Prophecy Theme, an excellent leftover from the Apollo albums sessions which I believe is not available elsewhere. It’s interesting to note that Toto never worked in the soundtrack field again and I wonder was it due to the critical mauling the film received ? Listening to the Dune Desert Theme, which could easily fit the heroics of Top Gun, the group might well have had a second day job á la Tangerine Dream…

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Art of American Unease

The fact-of-the-day on my desk calendar informs me that on this in 1869, the First US transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory, Utah, and it's reminded me of a favorite piece of artwork from my DVD collection - the Masters of Cinema edition of John Ford's Silent masterpiece The Iron Horse, which re-stages the driving of the "golden spike" that joined the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. The beautiful Masters of Cinema sleeve modeled on one of the original Fox film posters from 1924, depicts an Indian warrior perched on a cliff top gazing at a locomotive journeying through the valley below.

What I find interesting about this artwork is how the meaning has changed over the years. In the film the sympathies of Ford and his screenwriters lie squarely on the side of the railroad workers who come under frequent attack throughout by marauding tribes of Indians, and the artist of the poster captures well the sense of action and spectacle - within the context of the film the Indian Warrior in the picture could well be a lone scout, part of a war party preparing to ambush the locomotive and claim its spoils (such a raid is seen in one sequence in The Iron Horse). But when I look at the image through the long lens of history, to me it suggests something more disquieting - the arrival of the railroad not just as an instrument of progress, growth and expansion, but rather an unstoppable force of displacement and destruction. Whether the Indian warrior depicted in the sleeve is aware of the unconquerable power of the railroad is uncertain - at one point in The Iron Horse, a train driver cheerfully recalls an Indian trying to lasso a locomotive - but his posture, the cautious vantage point, the weapon he's clutching all suggest unease or fear, perhaps he's seeing this iron horse for the first time. Interestingly, Masters of Cinema opted to use one of the more stylized variations on the more well known Fox poster, and with it's psychedelic arrangement of colors, the boiling molten landscape, seems to accentuate this sense of foreboding.

I wonder had the unnamed artist at the Fox art department seen Herman Schuyler's 1880 oil painting The First Train which depicts a similar scene. In this painting three Native Americans observe a train crossing a prairie. At first glance the painting suggests a tranquil pastoral panorama - but the juxtaposition in the picture of the distant train and a swaddling baby reveals something more profound - the beginning of a new generation, but one that would herald a cataclysmic change for the lives of Native Americans. The laying of the Transcontinental Railroad tore up territories Native American tribes had occupied for generations, land that was deemed sacred was seized by the US Army and more and more European settlers headed west depleting buffalo herds and further displacing the indigenous people. In 1883 William Tecumseh Sherman, General of the Army of the United States, reflecting on the problem of Native American insurrection wrote that the completion of the railroad “has settled forever the Indian question".

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Star Wars Holiday Special

So today is Star Wars Day for no good reason (May the Fourth be with you, groan) but happily I'm reminded of the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, truly one of the most embarrassing moments in SW history. Lucasfilm has effectively banished this to a galaxy far far away but youtube as ever comes to the rescue. A word of caution - if you're allergic to Wookies, the Holiday Special might send you into anaphylactic shock. Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been The Star Wars Halloween Special what with the grotesque looking grandfather Wookie, and the scene where an Imperial troopers smashes up Chewbaca's kids' toys which might disturb sensitive younger viewers. And the constant braying from Chewbaca's family is genuinely distressing. Still it's not all bad - look out for a nice bit of intergalactic sleaze when the grandfather Wookie enjoys some virtual reality R&R - the intergalactic babe in the program offers: "I am your fantasy, your experience, so experience me". Fans of Star Trek: The Animated Series will enjoy a very 70's animated segment starring Boba Fett, there's a song from a fully stocked creature-factory Cantina, and a bizarre instructional video with lots of Max Headroom style video ef-ef-ef-effects. Odd. This is the sharp edge of exploitation and CBS who probably couldn't see past the advertisers lining up for airtime like audiences lined up around the block for the film, got what they deserved. I'd like to think that Lucas learned something valuable after whoring out his creative vision to people who didn't care or understand, but I remember being deeply disappointed when I saw The Ewok Adventure in the mid-80's, something I would consider another Star Wars mishap. And now that the Holiday Special is back in unofficial circulation, I must assume it is persona non grata among staff at Lucasfilm. Someday we will see the return of the original versions of Star Wars I've no doubt, but I'm positive this one will forever languish at the bottom of the Death Star's trash compactor.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Mona Lisa

Sometimes they fall for what they think I am” - Cathy Tyson offers a word of caution to Bob Hoskins which sadly falls on deaf ears… I treated myself to a screening of Mona Lisa this weekend and what a fantastic job the Arrow production team have done on the Blu-Ray edition, the film is a dazzling sight for sore eyes after so many tired-looking home video editions. Seeing the film again after an absence of a good few years, I can safely it’s Neil Jordan’s finest work (alongside End of the Affair), although I found myself irritated by the scenes with Robbie Coltrane (which regularly bring the film to a halt), and I think the film might have been more satisfying had it ended on Brighton pier. I suspect Hoskins’ character is so endearing that Jordan and David Leland just about get away with what is a gratuitous happy ending. I imagine Neil Jordan became thoroughly sick of the Taxi Driver comparisons, but one can’t help but think he invites them at certain points in the film – one scene even has the camera bolted to the bonnet of the car during one of Hoskins' nocturnal tours of the city’s underbelly. Still, the film is warmer and kinder than Taxi Driver and while not a superior picture to the Scorsese, it’s more inviting, perhaps even more watchable. I don’t know what those mean streets of London looked in the mid-80’s but I must assume Jordan went for a stylized view of the city – at one point I thought of Satyricon, as shadowy figures huddled beneath an underpass, momentarily illuminated by flickering fires. And there’s a pleasing intersection of Hoskins’ character George with his Long Good Friday counterpart Harold Shand when George expresses his disgust for the multi-racial neighborhood, much like the scene where Shand pays a visit to Erroll the grass…

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Bird with the Stunning Artwork

I'm loving Candice Tripp's fantastic painting for Arrow's forthcoming The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Blu-Ray, coming this June. More of her extraordinary artwork can be enjoyed here

I’m thinking about artwork for previous home video releases of Argento’s film and two editions readily come to mind, both playing on a psycho-sexual angle. Vampix’s 1983 tape came with a highly visceral sleeve, with its slashed up image and  the suggestion that Suzy Kendall might well be the film’s demented killer. Incidentally, the back sleeve features a short and thoughtful synopsis of the film which I believe was penned by Argento scholar Alan Jones. Issued a few year later, Stable Cane’s edition gives the game away ever so slightly with a pointed reference to the gender of the killer, but it’s a striking piece of artwork all the same, and one that I’m fond of, having owned this edition for several years.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A mean pinball

I’ve been listening to The Who these past few days (in between bouts of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters LP and the 1st African Head Charge album), and leafing thru a Who magazine I stumbled across the 1972 curio Tommy Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Choir. This particular Tommy doesn’t hold much interest for me (I’m listening to some samples now on youtube and it’s rather corny), but the Tom Wilkes’ album design is truly fantastic – the smooth metallic, reflective surface of the pinball feels incredibly sensual. I used to see the album in second-hand records stores throughout the 90’s, the LP box almost always falling asunder and missing the inserts. If I was a bigger Who fan, I would seek out a copy for Wilkes’ design work alone, but Discogs scratches that particular itch with some nice scans of the inner contents. The idea of the all-seeing pinball popping up in various locations has me racking my brains to where I’ve seen this motif before – perhaps I’m thinking of the strange phallic ornament that appears in the photographs on Zep’s Presence album, or the megaphone seen in various locations on Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses. I like Wilkes’ cover enough to think it superior to the Dark Side of the Moon’s prism, and casting commercial concerns aside, it would have made a terrific Phantasm poster…

Friday, 7 April 2017

Favourite Hong Kong Films

The Big Boss is probably no one's favourite Hong Kong film but it was the first Hong Kong film I saw and was my passport into a strange new world of Asian Cinema, of flying fists, righteous revenge and dubbing that left characters mouths flapping like stranded fish. It's primitive, even by later Bruce Lee vehicles, and the plot of the film holds Lee back from fighting for over an hour, making it all the more sweeter when the Little Dragon uncoils into a weapon of mass destruction...

If The Big Boss was a personal first, then so too was Hardboiled, John Woo's 1991 film, my first introduction to the so-called "Heroic Bloodshed" genre. Woo may have made better films but in many ways Hardboiled is the director's slickest, most streamlined film and not surprisingly Hardboiled was instrumental in introducing the West to Hong Kong's revolutionary gun operas, the dazzling choreography, death before dishonor, and ammo clips that never run dry...

Stylish, intelligent and complex enough to demand multiple viewings, Mad Detective, Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai's 2007 film, the newest arrival on my list has in it's short life become an instant classic. For the few reading this who haven’t yet seen the film, it's best to go in knowing as little as possible - The Sixth Sense and Fight Club toyed with a similar plot device but Mad Detective avoids the join-the-dots approach to story-telling and makes its audience do its own detective work but once you surrender yourself to the film's hallucinatory weirdness you'll begin to wonder why all films aren't made like this...

A Hong Kong film about two gay men living in Argentina is notable for that alone, but Happy Together, Wong Kar-Wai's 1996 film, a mockingly-titled meditation on the impossibility of relationships is one of the great masterpieces of World Cinema. Impossibly stylish, and shot with an arsenal of different film stocks and lighting and improv-style cutting the film drew comparisons with Jean-Luc Godard's most vital work, but Happy Together is more like a piece of free jazz - joyous, spontaneous, inventive, hypnotic, and mesmerizing...

Legendary for popularizing Martial Arts films in America (only previously seen in a few isolated Chinatown districts), Five Fingers of Death is likely to topple under the weight of history, but Chang-Hwa Jeong's film still remains a touchstone of the genre. Aside from the thrill of the action set-pieces, the story is dramatically satisfying, the performances, at least in the Mandarin version have depth and weight, and in contrast to the exquisite Shaw Brothers sets and photography the violence is surprisingly grisly. Seminal stuff...

Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind is a hand grenade of a film, set in a decidedly grimy and unglamorous Hong Kong rife with overcrowding, vicious triad gangsters and teenagers who get their kicks from urban guerrilla warfare and torturing small animals. I first saw the film in 2011 and was so utterly astonished I wrote "So volatile a mix, the celluloid itself seems in danger of catching fire as it runs through the projector gate". If this very unique film has a spiritual heir it might well be Takashi Miike's unhinged City of Lost Souls and his Dead or Alive films, and appropriately enough Tsui Hark's great outlaw film includes illicit snatches of Goblin's Dawn of the Dead score and Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygène (?)

John Woo's 1990 film Bullet In the Head doesn't have the tight framework of The Killer or Hardboiled, it's story of three lifelong friends trying to make their fortune is altogether more expansive moving out of the turbulent streets of Hong Kong and into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War. The film is nothing less than an epic, and Woo shows tremendous style and maturity in his approach to the material. Unlike the balletic action of his gangster films, the violence in Bullet In the Head is ugly and harrowing, so much so the British Censor was once reluctant to give the film a certificate. A John Woo film to savor, if only because Bullet In the Head is one of his last great films before a regrettable move to Hollywood and the string of mediocre American films that followed...

Quite possibly the sexiest PG-rated film you are ever likely to see, In the Mood For Love, Wong Kar-Wai's millennium follow-up to Happy Together is a far more delicate affair, with career best performances from Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. No surprise that it's ended up in many people's lists, the film is a cinematic tour de force of direction, editing, costumes, music (Yumeji's Theme once heard is never forgotten), Christopher Doyle's extraordinarily sensual photography and that wonderful strange and dreamlike ending among the ruins of Angkor Wat...

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Throbbing Gristle - Brighton Polytechnic, March 26th 1977

Throbbing Gristle's show at the Brighton Polytechnic (the first of two visits by the group, a second followed in 1978), was staged at the campus' Sallis Benney Theatre, a dingy cavernous space that served as a locus for all sorts of idiosyncratic art happenings. Invited by the students from the art and design faculty, the group might have expected a more receptive audience than the sneering punks at the previous show at the Nag's Head in High Wycombe, but TG managed 50min of their 1-hour set before a hail of jeers and bottles flung by drunk, abusive punters brought things to a close. As TG concerts go, the Brighton '77 show is one of the group's finest, and despite the antagonism on the night, the group were pleased enough to include a few excerpts from the show on Second Annual Report. The Brighton show opens with a particularly strong Zyklon B Zombie, and it's curious that TG all but retired the song after the concert, dropped from the set-list, with the studio version only making a belated appearance a year later as the flipside of the United single. Ominous bass rumblings, eerie drones and garbled walkie-talkie sounds usher in the urban paranoia of Last Exit, (the title, one presumes, a nod to the Hubert Selby Jr. novel), which builds to a chugging mechanical crunch accompanied by a surreal Genesis P-Orridge vocal about being smashed in the face with a brick and suffering disturbing visions of the British Queen being sodomized by her husband. The lengthy instrumental passage that follows is one of the great TG jams, an astonishing free form torrent of noise and mangled voice sample cut-ups, including the dispassionate confession of a teenage murderer, surely one of Sleazy's most effective dialogue lifts. Genesis returns to the mike for Mary Jane / Record Contract with an improvised vocal that is silly, witty, embarrassing, and ultimately fascinating, the long rambling monologue that eventually mutates into a rant against rock star posturing and record company prostitution, the Sex Pistols in particular the focus of Genesis' scorn. Despite the Pistols burning through contracts with EMI and A&M, (and pocketing the severance pay), Genesis clearly valued TG's independence over Malcolm McLaren's cash from chaos strategies.

Perhaps the biggest talking point of the Brighton '77 show (or the concert recording at least) is the coda tacked on to the end of the Industrial tape where the house DJ berates the audience for their hostility towards TG, sarcastically blasting out The Stooges' Down on the Street on the PA. The group, ever mischievous included a few seconds of the exchange to close out one side of Second Annual Report, (a companion of sorts to D.o.A.'s Death Threats) and it's worth noting that this short snippet is the only place where one can hear (albeit a few seconds only) of the Funhouse opener; the Stooges airbrushed entirely from the TG24 CD edition of the Brighton show. And while the concert never descends into the violence of the Film Makers Co-Op show, the mood sounds edgy and tense - at one point Genesis can be heard saying "make sure everything is safe" presumably referring to TG's equipment. In the years following TG's split individual members would recall weariness at the increasing adulation they were seeing at later shows, a sharp contrast to the sense of disillusionment at the Brighton performance. No breakthrough in grey room it seems...