1987 was the year hip-hop went mainstream in the UK. Or at least it felt like that at my school.
A few of the ‘cool’ kids were nicking the VW signs popularised by Mike D of the Beastie Boys (a major tabloid cause célèbre) and friends’ parents were even playing Licensed To Ill at parties.
Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Salt-N-Pepa were the dog’s b****cks, graffiti culture was getting big and DJ Tim Westwood was fast becoming a household name, thanks to his progression from Kiss FM to Capital.
This excellent, recently-unearthed BBC documentary handily incorporates all of the above:
Two legendary gigs seem to epitomise London’s love affair with classic hip-hop in ’87: Run DMC & Beastie Boys’ notorious double-header at the Brixton Academy – the first night of which happened 30 years ago today – and also the Def Jam package tour which checked into the Hammersmith Odeon later in the year.
As the late great Shaw Taylor used to say on ‘Police 5’, were you there? If you were (I wasn’t), let me know your memories of these seminal London gigs.
It’s difficult to view a film like ‘Heaven’s Gate’ these days shorn of all the hoo-ha that accompanied its troubled production and disastrous cinematic release (outlined in the definitive book and documentary ‘Final Cut‘).
But let’s give it a try. It was of course the notorious movie that destroyed United Artists and pretty much ended the New Hollywood ideal of director-as-auteur; the $44 million turkey which grossed just $1.2 million at the box office.
Writer/director Michael Cimino went looking for ‘the poetry of America’ in his film about the Johnson County War of 1896, when the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association decided that new settlers – mainly poor, immigrant homesteaders – were stealing cattle, decreeing that 125 of these so-called thieves be hunted down and either hung or shot.
Though Cimino’s film ends with a battlefield bloodbath (including many horses in apparent physical peril which led him into a further unwanted lawsuit), history records that ‘only’ two people lost their lives in the Johnson County War.
But, defending his screenplay and movie to the end, Cimino clung steadfastly to one of his directing/writing credos: ‘I use history freely’.
But, historical license aside, how much of a turkey is ‘Heaven’s Gate’ really? Can any movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterston, John Hurt and Isabelle Huppert really be such a dog?
Yes. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is that special kind of crap movie, the indulgent folly that spews elongated scenes out all over the place in the hope that something will stick.
Vilmos Zgismond’s camerawork is of course gorgeous; grainy and sepia-tinged, frequently reminiscent of the era’s stills photography. The movie frequently delivers the awesome image, including one famous panning shot across immense smokestack chimneys and hoards of wandering, displaced immigrants.
The Oxford-filmed opening graduation ceremony is also plush, striking and gloriously evocative.
Jeff Bridges. Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson
But then there’s the inaudible dialogue and strange, schizoid reaction shots. As the film progresses, Kristofferson becomes more and more inactive and dramatically impotent, while Bridges, Dourif, Hurt and Rourke are chronically underused.
Huppert is virtually incomprehensible in a fairly thankless role (turned down by every major female star of the era including Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton).
Cimino’s war metaphor in ‘The Deer Hunter’ was Russian roulette, but this time it’s endless cock-fighting, waltzing and rollerskating.
He clearly feels that the film says something important about America’s treatment of its poor and disenfranchised (and it’s certainly interesting viewing that aspect through modern eyes), but unfortunately the scenes of political wrangling/bargaining are interminable.
Pauline Kael memorably said that it was easy to think about what to leave out of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ but hard to think what to leave in. That’s the impression left with this writer too.
Quite frankly, apart from the stunning photography, one of the few pleasures watching the film again was spotting the gorgeous Rosie (‘Roseanne’ in the credits) Vela’s small but important cameo (see below). ‘Magic Smile’ indeed.
Though they emerged as a quintessentially-1980s pop act, Swing Out Sister actually had impeccable post-punk credentials.
Keyboardist Andy Connell had played with Factory Records-signed A Certain Ratio before SOS, drummer Martin Jackson had previously worked with Magazine and The Chameleons while singer Corinne Drewery had sung back-up with Working Week amongst others.
The result was a musically-rich, very commercial take on the self-contained recording ‘project’ in the Yazoo/Scritti/Steely mould. But Swing Out Sister’s USP was taking influences from the mid-’80s UK jazz revival and filtering them through ’60s pop and the burgeoning House scene.
Young tyro Paul Staveley O’Duffy, fresh from his work with Hipsway, was brought in to produce – an inspired choice. He recruited Pat Metheny/Frankie/ABC arranger Richard Niles for the horns/strings and mobilised the UK session elite (Wix, Guy Barker, Luis Jardim, John Thirkell, Gavin Wright, Chris Whitten, Jakko et al).
It’s Better To Travel was a fascinating mashup of jazz, early house, ZTT techno-flash and pop. First, the jazz. It’s all over the album: ‘After Hours’ has a melody line straight out of Joe Zawinul’s ‘In A Silent Way’. The verse of ‘Communion’ borrows liberally from Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ and also has an instrumental break reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘Teen Town’.
‘Twilight World’ and ‘Fooled By A Smile’ are cracking pop songs with dynamic horns, memorable string arrangements and hints of Dusty and Bacharach. ‘Breakout’ may be one of the more irritating hits of the late ’80s (making the top 10 hit in both UK and US) but musically it’s far superior to the usual ’80s chart fare.
‘Surrender’ still sounds fantastic today, a modal dancefloor track with intricate backing vocals, epic strings and a cool Guy Barker trumpet solo. It was also another top 10 hit (UK #7).
Minor tracks ‘Blue Mood’ and ‘It’s Not Enough’ are more synth-pop than pure-pop, but still very likable, and It’s Better To Travel closes with a dramatic instrumental (‘Theme’) which channels John Barry’s memorable movie scores.
O’Duffy also does a sterling job with the mix: it’s very easy on the ear, not too loud or bassy. It’s music that breathes. It’s Better To Travel was one of the best pop debuts of the 1980s and also a big hit, making #1 in the UK charts.
Swing Out Sister waited a couple of years to release their followup, by which time they’d mainly ditched the house and jazz influences in favour of a far more poppy sound. But It’s Better To Travel still produces a very pleasant contact-high for summer 1987 – good days, good days, as Derek Smalls once said.
Reading obituaries of director Jonathan Demme, who has died from cancer aged 73, it struck me how many memorable scenes his films spawned.
Born in Baldwin, Long Island, his early career was mentored by B-movie pioneer Roger Corman.
When Demme broke into Hollywood he never lost sight of his early exploitation influences and zany sense of humour; even ‘serious’ fare like ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘Philadelphia’ was hijacked by sundry in-jokes and bizarro guest stars including Corman, Chris Isaak and George A Romero.
Demme’s sets were famous for being fun places to work, and that’s borne out by the bonhomie and improvisatory vibe present in many of his films.
He was clearly a friend of musicians, frequently using music in his movies as symbol of collaboration or even spiritual release (writer David Bowman memorably described ‘Stop Making Sense’ as ‘a three-act play documenting the spiritual journey of a hapless white guy trying to “get down”’!).
Apparently Demme sat down with each original member of Talking Heads before filming ‘Stop Making Sense’ and asked them, ‘How do you see me doing this?’ It’s hard to imagine Brian De Palma doing that.
As a live-music documentarian, Demme let the viewer get to know each performer as if they were a character in a movie with the use of long, lingering shots, a world away from the clichéd, fast-cutting MTV style.
So, in tribute to a modern master, here are a few memorable moments from Demme films, in chronological order:
Bought: Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988 (directly after seeing Robert Fripp play instore…)
This is the first Zappa album I ever bought. It was a cheapo Fame Records/EMI cassette edition. Before Ship, I had only heard choice cuts courtesy of a friend’s career-spanning compilation.
I was going to say that Ship was not the ideal album to start with, but actually with hindsight it probably was; it’s maddening, brilliant, tawdry, overblown – basically a microcosm of Zappa’s ’80s output.
Ship ditched the lush, multi-tracked sound of 1981’s You Are What You Is in favour of a no-reverb, claustrophobic mix featuring Chad Wackerman’s busy drums, blaring synths, in-your-face bass and loads of wacky guitar processing.
Opening track ‘No Not Now’, concerning the sexual dilemmas of a long-distance truck driver, is a six-minute disaster area that would surely test the patience of even the most diehard Zappa fan.
‘Valley Girl’ placed killer new-wave rock around daughter Moon’s hilarious vocal exclamations. It was a typically bold, spontaneous and very successful career move by FZ resulting in a timely hit single (peaking at #32 in the US).
But we then unfortunately segue into ‘I Come From Nowhere’, a fairly unlistenable track about the inanity of TV personalities with a ghastly vocal performance by Roy Estrada over an uninvolving, sub-Men At Work riff.
But side two of Ship demonstrates all that’s essential about ’80s Zappa. It should really be heard in its totality.
The title track is surely one of his career highlights, a unique, surrealistic 12-minute salvo featuring spoken-word, ‘scatting’, a great rock guitar solo over a grinding 9/8 vamp, a blizzard of avant-garde piano/percussion and even a quote from Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’ (of course also a piece about ritual sacrifice).
‘Envelopes’ is a brief but brilliant through-composed tribute to Conlon Nancarrow featuring close-interval, player-piano perversions, while ‘Teenage Prostitute’ is the R-rated version of ‘Valley Girl’, a hellish vision of Hollywood’s underbelly complete with ‘Peter Gunn’ riffs, intricate marimba and operatic vocals by Lisa Popeil.
I was in. I would immediately go back/forward and investigate FZ’s career in more detail. Next up was Sheik Yerbouti, the first CD I ever bought and probably my favourite Zappa album.