The Cult Movie Club: The Thing (1982) 40 Years Old Today

Of course it wasn’t as much of a flop as often thought (budget circa $15 million, US box office circa $20 million) but director John Carpenter was under no illusions as to how the studio (Universal) perceived his ‘Thing’ in the immediate aftermath of its 25 June 1982 release, not helped by the release of ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ two weeks before.

(Also, has there ever been a less suitable ‘summer movie’ than ‘The Thing’?!) Then there was the changing nature of horror-film audiences to contend with. After one market research screening, one audience member apparently approached Carpenter pleading complete ignorance regarding the ending. When Carpenter responded that it was up to their imagination, the teenager mumbled, ‘Oh, God. I hate that…’

With hindsight, maybe we can also point a finger at the marketing. The standard Hollywood thinking – as per Art Linon’s book ‘What Just Happened’ – was that the marketing people would always blame a film’s poor box office on anything but the marketing, and generally keep their jobs in the event of a bomb. That would definitely not be the case now…

Above is the original poster – hardly a classic of its era, with very little if nothing to do with the film. The below VHS rental cover is surely what they should have gone with, complete with classic tagline and surreal main image.

Still, the movie is as fresh and troubling today as it was 40 years ago, and anyone who hasn’t seen it should check it out ASAP, on as big a screen as possible. Happy birthday, Der Thing!

Who Writes The Songs That Make Those Old Blokes Cry: 1980s Tearjerkers

It’s all radio presenter Nick Abbot’s fault. On a recent podcast, he mentioned finding himself with a tear in the eye when listening to David Gilmour’s second guitar solo on Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ in his car.

But it’s a subject almost totally ignored in print outside scientific works: music’s effect on body and mind. If you love it, surely it’s supposed to create a molecular change.

The last few years may also have precipitated a more emotional relationship to music than usual, despite the current industry obsession with data and algorithms.

So, hide the onions and pass the sick bag: here are a few tracks from the 1980s that may have occasionally been known to put a lump in this correspondent’s throat, driven by nostalgia, musical excellence, loss of innocence and who knows what else.

19. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’
She wants a husband and some kids but somehow the music tells you that the protagonist is never going to get out from under…

18. Johnny Gill: ‘Half Crazy’

17. Keith Jarrett: ‘Spirits 2’

16. The Kids From Fame: ‘Starmaker’

15. Peter Gabriel: ‘Lead A Normal Life’
Hard to think of a piece of music that better expresses loneliness, but there’s compassion too.

14. Christopher Cross: ‘Sailing’

13. Blondie: ‘Atomic’

12. The Pretenders: ‘Hymn To Her’

11. Art Pepper: ‘Our Song’
Gratuitous sax and violins. Recorded 18 months before his death, inspired by meeting his widow Laurie, Pepper seeks redemption for a largely selfish, itinerant life – does he find it? He tries bloody hard.

10. Jaco Pastorius: ‘John & Mary’

9. Pino Donaggio: ‘Blow Out (closing titles)’
The melody maestro’s beautiful theme from Brian De Plasma’s 1981 film starring John Travolta and the director’s then-wife Nancy Allen. A critic once said that her character’s death in the movie is the first one De Palma seems to care about – Donaggio’s music is the reason.

8. Madonna: ‘Oh Father’

7. David Bowie: ‘Absolute Beginners’
It’s the hope, not the despair. Maybe THIS time it’s all going to work out, ‘just like in the films’…

6. David Sanborn: ‘Imogene’

5. Dexter Gordon/Herbie Hancock: ‘Still Time’ 
The double meaning of Herbie’s title says it all – Dexter’s beautiful soprano playing is fragile yet also somehow ageless.

4. Prefab Sprout: ‘Moving The River’

3. Janet Jackson: ‘Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make)’
Just for the sheer beauty of Jam and Lewis’s composition. Janet’s words augment that.

2. Scritti Politti: ‘Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy)’

1. The Police: ‘Driven To Tears’ (only joking – that’s enough tearjerkers… Ed.)

If you’ve got the stomach for it, chime in with your tearjerkers below.

xPropaganda: The Heart Is Strange

Though not a big hit on its original release, Propaganda’s 1985 album A Secret Wish only seems to grow in stature as the years pass.

It was arguably the last meaningful release on the ZTT label, spawning two UK top 40 singles. More importantly it was a sonic treat, full of grandeur and drama, one of the great pop albums of the 1980s.

The Dusseldorf-formed band made a couple of botched attempts to reunite – the 1234 album in 1990, a Martin Gore/Tim Simenon-assisted try in 1998, then a partial gathering at Trevor Horn’s charity gig at Wembley Arena in 2004.

But now they’re back as xPropaganda (who knows the legal machinations behind that moniker). Founding members Michael Mertens and Ralf Dorper are not around this time but vocalists/songwriters Claudia Brucken and Susanne Freytag are, alongside Secret Wish producer/guitarist Steve Lipson.

Excitingly their album The Heart Is Strange is also on the newly reignited ZTT (Horn is credited as ‘Advisor’), via Universal Music Catalogue.

My expectations were high but then were slightly dashed with the choice of ‘Don’t You Mess With Me’ as lead-off single/trailer. It’s easily the least interesting track on the album.

Lush, cinematic opener ‘The Night’ definitely evokes memory of A Secret Wish’s epic track one ‘Dream Within A Dream’, even if Terry Edwards’ muted trumpet is incongruously ‘jazzy’ as opposed to the resplendent playing (by whom? Guy Barker? Steve Sidwell?) on the 1985 track. And there are too many vocal melodies to choose from, none particularly intriguing.

Elsewhere there are better tunes and the odd appealing lyrical zinger. And if synths are your bag, these sounds – mostly courtesy of Pete Murray – are fantastic, sometimes lush and ominous, sometimes intricate and ingenious. It’s great headphone music.

But there’s not enough memorable Lipson lead guitar on The Heart Is Strange and the drum programming is a bit flat. Paging Steve Jansen. Best track? The enigmatic closer ‘Ribbons Of Steel’, a nearly ten-minute spoken-word rumination on the end of a relationship with hints of the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab’s I Trawl The Megahertz.

The Heart Is Strange is a solid B+. Good in places but must try harder. Too many mid-tempo songs. Certainly not in the league of the freaky A Secret Wish (a lack of Mertens may have a lot to do with that?) and without that album’s pristine mastering, depth of sound, harmonic intrigue and wacky guest appearances, but some decent new material to play live. Maybe next time they’ll let their hair down a bit – and hopefully get Mertens involved again.

Brucken and Freytag speak about The Heart Is Strange in this podcast.

And Stephen Lipson deconstructs A Secret Wish and xPropaganda here.

Book Review: Exit Stage Left (The Curious Afterlife Of Pop Stars) by Nick Duerden

The story goes that The Human League’s Phil Oakey smashed the phone to pieces immediately after hearing from his manager that ‘Don’t You Want Me’ had gone to number one in America.

There was a creeping suspicion that he had peaked too early, and the only way was down.

Maybe it was a natural reaction in those competitive, cut-throat pop years of the early 1980s, but little did he know that that song would probably come in very handy over the years and pay for kids’ school fees, parents’ homes, tax bills, etc etc.

Nick Duerden’s gripping, important new book ‘Exit Stage Left’ doesn’t interview Oakey but does many others from the pop pantheon who have had some early success and then swiftly asked ‘Is that all there is?’ after a career downturn or ‘change of musical direction’.

Duerden has a formidable contacts book and gets candid quotes from some surprisingly big names. Shaun Ryder tells of having to pay back huge debts after being hit with a legal bill in 1998. Robbie Williams discusses his surprisingly lonely, low-key bachelor life when moving to Los Angeles after becoming the UK’s biggest pop star.

Suzanne Vega relates the shame of having to ‘downsize’ her band and crew mid-tour when audiences failed to fill large enues and The Boo Radleys’ Martin Carr discusses saying no to licensing requests for ‘Wake Up Boo’, trying to hold onto his punk credentials, but then ‘teaching himself to say yes’. Ex-Frankie Goes To Hollywood guitarist Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash talks about his PTSD diagnosis (as do a few other artists).

Elsewhere there are fascinating interviews with Lloyd Cole, Natalie Merchant, Roisin Murphy and Wendy James on the relative benefits of success and the words of Kevin Rowland, Musical Youth’s Dennis Seaton and Ed Tudor-Pole are touching and somewhat humbling.

Duerden writes with compassion and has a winning way of summing up his interviewees’ physical essences – Stereo MC’s Rob Birch ‘never rose to his full height but rather hovered in a perpetual half crouch, as if his bones were made from elastic bands.’ Billy Bragg ‘looked like he would sunburn easily and so was best kept far from exotic beaches.’

‘Exit Stage Left’ is a sobering read and will ring true to anyone who’s ever been stung by the business, or had their dream job whipped from beneath them. Thanks to Duerden’s witty, fast-moving style, it’s pithy and powerful but never too depressing.

The book also touches on areas generally not touched with a ten-foot (Tudor) pole by the music biz – mental illness, poverty, shame, family estrangement, divorce, burnout. Like any other industry, the music biz sure has its casualties. And if the more discerning, slightly cynical reader may at points be shouting: ‘Why don’t you just go and get a NORMAL job?’ – well, a surprising amount of the interviewees did just that.

Along with Simon Garfield’s ‘Expensive Habits’, Eamonn Forde’s ‘The Final Days Of EMI’ and Seymour Stein’s ‘Siren Song’, ‘Exit Stage Left’ is one of the most illuminating books this correspondent has read about the music industry – how it really operates. As Duerden says, ‘Successful businesses tend to be the most ruthless, and the music business is very successful indeed.’ Don’t miss.

Duerden talks about ‘Exit Stage Left’ in this recent WORD podcast.

Alex Higgins wins the World Snooker Championship: 40 Years Ago Today

‘Hurricane’ Higgins’ semi-final against Jimmy White had really been the gateway match for me in terms of getting into snooker, but the final of 15/16 May 1982 sealed the deal, as it did for millions of young people around Britain.

40 years ago today, Higgins won his second world championship, beating Ray Reardon (a six-time winner who had never lost in a final) 18-15 in a classic match. The Hurricane’s frame-winning break of 135 and raw emotion will live long in the memory.

11 May 1987: Talk Talk commence recording Spirit Of Eden

35 years ago today, Mark Hollis (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Tim Friese-Green (keyboards, production), Lee Harris (drums), Paul Webb (bass) and engineer Phill Brown convened at London’s Wessex Studios (don’t look for it – it’s not there any more) to begin work on the Talk Talk album Spirit Of Eden.

During May, June and July 1987, this core unit worked five-day weeks from 11am until midnight, in near darkness apart from an oil projector, a gentle strobe lighting effect and three Anglepoise lamps.

Tim Friese-Green on the Hammond organ, Wessex Studios

Basic tracks laid down, they took a break. On 19 October 1987, work resumed with instrumental overdubs; first woodwinds, then a coterie of world-class musicians including David Rhodes, Bernie Holland and Larry Klein, whose contributions would end up on the cutting-room floor. But those whose performances did make the cut include Nigel Kennedy, Danny Thompson, Robbie McIntosh, Martin Ditcham and Henry Lowther.

Lee Harris’s drum booth, Wessex Studios

Almost a year in the making, Spirit Of Eden was finally released on 12 September 1988 (after a long delay while EMI panicked – it was actually completed on 11 March 1988) and remains one of the most influential, least-dated ‘rock’ albums of the 1980s.

Thanks to Phill Brown for use of his photos.

‘Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence’ is published by Ben Wardle.

The ‘Spirit Of Eden’ master tapes

Guest post: Gary Grimaldi reviews my new album for Bandcamp Friday

Hey guys, Gary Grimaldi here, eminent music scribe, checking in from The Big Apple.

I’m here to hip you mothers to a new release from this mattjoplin kid. You know, that London guy who writes/plays everything himself and records in his local ‘park’?

Well, the douchebag calls me the other week – sounded like he was ringing from the eye of a hurricane actually – and shouts something about a new album. Melody Attack – that’s the title, that’s what he’s called it. Tell me more, I spake unto him. No answer was forthcoming. Dead air, man.

What a lowlife, Limey a**hole.

Whatever. The files arrive in my inbox next day. I check them out. I can’t deny it – the sonofabitch has done it again. He’s got a whole bunch of mess on there – rockabilly, psych, jazz/fusion, acoustic/’sensitive’ crap, spoken word, ambient/soundtrack/whatever.

It’s a trip, man. A journey through space and time.

So. Help a bro. Get hold of Melody Attack here. And you can find his first album Dream Avenue here. And it’s Bandcamp Friday today, so the artists get all the profits, not the suits. Cool beans.

Anyways. That’s it from me. I gotta get down to the Vanguard to catch Archie Shepp’s late set. Keep it greasy, babies, and see you further down the trail.

From the desk of Gary Grimaldi
Head of Popular Musics
The Village View
NYC
May 6, 2022