The Cult Movie Club: All The Vermeers In New York (1990)

A major trope of ’80s or ’80s-set films, books, plays and – dammit – life itself (plus ça change) was the bonkers – or, at the very least, morally unsound – banker, broker or trader. ‘Wall Street’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘9 1/2 Weeks’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’, ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. You get the picture.

But in Jon Jost’s movie ‘All The Vermeers In New York’, actor Stephen Lack, best known for his unique performance in David Cronenberg’s cult classic ‘Scanners’, delivered a nuanced, highly original take on the character.

His middle-aged broker Mark is lonely, strange, poetic, neurotic and in possession of a serious death wish. He’s kind of a Zen Patrick Bateman, without the mass murder. So it’s just his bad luck when he becomes obsessed with French acting student Anna (Emmanuelle Chalet), whom he believes looks just like the woman in Vermeer’s painting ‘Study Of A Young Girl’.

Stephen Lack in ‘All The Vermeers In New York’

The film – which I managed to record onto VHS during its one and only showing on Channel Four in the mid-1990s – is kind of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ meets Mike Leigh, a classic New York art-house movie with its quiet bars, art galleries (Mark finds Anna in the Met, in a scene reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s ‘Dressed To Kill’) and plush interiors, but one that also relies on ‘naturalistic’ performances and mostly improvised dialogue. Jon English’s avant-jazz score is also superb, with more than a hint of Charles Mingus about it.

‘All The Vermeers In New York’ is also weirdly au courant, about the commodification of art and sex, and the all-powerful money-mind. We only see fragments of the characters’ troubled, conflicted lives – the teenager who worries about the unethical companies her rich daddy is putting her name to, the heroin-addicted artist refused money by his gallery-owning friend, Mark wearily intoning about his lonely apartment looking out on a building that could be ‘street-level Europe’.

Roger Ebert gave ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ a decent review on its release. To some, the film will seem like pretentious twaddle, to others a refreshing voyage into a dream world à la ‘Blow Up’, ‘Dead Ringers’, ‘The Music Of Chance’. All I know is that I revisit it about every three years and take something new from it each time.

Director Jost seems to have a very sketchy rep, described online variously as an indie movie pioneer and pretentious waste of space. Yes, ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ probably belongs in an art gallery rather than a movie theatre, but it’s still a fascinating ride.

 

Madonna: Like A Prayer 30 Years On

Here it is: Madonna’s artistic breakthrough, the first album of hers that was really geared to the CD-buying audience, and a fresh start after the distinctly dodgy years of 1987 and 1988.

Like A Prayer (weird title: didn’t someone in the Warner Bros. marketing department say, ‘Hey, it’s a bit similar to Like A Virgin‘?) was released 30 years ago this week. It topped the US and UK charts, spawned six hit singles and has sold around 15 million copies to date.

It was a revelation on a few levels – Madonna’s singing voice had more range and richness. Her lyrics were getting personal. There were two songs about her marriage to Sean Penn, and three zoning in on family relationships. She co-wrote and co-produced all the songs; by all accounts she knew exactly what she wanted and was present at all the tracking sessions, finding ever new ways of inspiring the performances she was after (see below).

She hooked up with co-producer/co-songwriter Pat Leonard to great effect. It was a classic double act – she provided melodies, street smarts and lyrics, he provided the classically-trained piano and arrangement skills. The result was her Sgt Pepper’s, a varied, ambitious, major work.

But how does Like A Prayer stack up these days? Here’s a track-by-track rundown of arguably Madonna’s greatest album.

‘Like A Prayer’: The lead-off single, a US and UK #1, once described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It was also highly controversial in its allusions to oral sex and an apparent conflation between religious/sexual ecstasy, not to mention the envelope-pushing video.

‘Express Yourself’: Great feminist party pop/funk tune co-written with Stephen Bray, inspired by Sly And The Family Stone and anchored by JR Robinson’s crisp grooving. Shep Pettibone’s single remix subsequently usurped the album version. David Fincher’s video cost a reported $5 million.

‘Love Song’: This duet with Prince was a curious meeting of pop giants, musically in the Lovesexy/Batman mould but lacking a great hook, though apparently they did initially write it eye to eye, Prince programming drums and Madonna donning a synth. Tapes were then worked on individually and sent back and forth between LA and Minneapolis. Whilst interesting, it’s nearer to a Prince B-side than something really memorable.

‘Til Death Do Us Part’: A coruscating portrait of her marriage breakup to Sean Penn, made even more poignant by its sprightly Scritti-style pop. Bassist Guy Pratt was the recipient of Madonna’s unique production style on this track. ‘What did you think of that?’ she asked him after one take. ‘Um… I think it was OK…’ was his response. ‘Did it make your d*ck hard?’ Madonna shot back!

‘Promise To Try’: A powerful ballad, featuring an uncharacteristically emotional vocal. According to Madonna, it was written completely spontaneously: ‘He (Leonard) just sat down and started playing, and I started singing.’

‘Cherish’: More Scritti-inspired pop fun, all major chords and twinkling synths, looking at happier times with Sean. Jeff Porcaro’s trademark shuffle is his one and only drumming appearance on the album.

‘Dear Jessie’: An inspired take on late-’60s psychedelia, almost like a children’s lullaby. A very cool, unexpected track.

‘Oh Father’: A gorgeous ballad in 6/4 with music by Leonard and lyrics by Madonna, written in a tiny rehearsal studio in the garment district of New York when Madonna was in ‘a very, very dark place’ during her tenure in the David Mamet play ‘Speed-the-Plow’. Madonna: ‘”Oh Father” is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all the authority figures in my life’. The song’s intro alone can put a big lump in this writer’s throat. Madonna apparently coaxed the band through the song, telling bassist Pratt and drummer Jonathan Moffett in no uncertain terms where not to play. Apart from string section and guitar overdubs, they got it on the second full take, including Madonna’s live vocal. During the sessions, Moffett also asked her when he should come in. ‘You come in when I do this’, she replied, lifting up her blouse!

‘Keep It Together’: Another Stephen Bray co-write, this Go-Go-inspired ode to family togetherness, featuring some brilliant Randy Jackson bass, became a mainstay of her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. If you play it loud you can also really hear the superb backing vocals of her regular live duo Niki Haris and Donna DeLory.

‘Pray For Spanish Eyes’: The point where Like A Prayer starts to run out of steam. A corny, soft-rock version compendium of Spanish clichés, complete with castanets and weary acoustic guitar, and a weirdly unmemorable melody.

‘Act Of Contrition’: And here’s the other stinker. Madonna free-associates awkwardly over a reversed version of the title track, with Prince’s backwards guitar track also ladled on to no great consequence.

Further reading: ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ by Paul Zollo

‘My Bass And Other Animals’ by Guy Pratt

Propaganda: Wishful Thinking

ZTT Records – under the auspices of Trevor Horn – really used the remix format. No throwaway, rush-released projects for them. Their remixes were petri dishes for sonic experiments and situationist pranks, many worthwhile and innovative.

And of course several remix albums were released on ZTT – Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm was essentially one song done eight different ways, and there was also a whole Frankie Goes To Hollywood LP dedicated to ‘Two Tribes’ remixes.

But maybe a lesser-known example is Propaganda’s Wishful Thinking, a reworking of the Düsseldorf unit’s seminal 1985 album A Secret Wish, originally produced by Stephen Lipson (with one track – ‘Dr Mabuse’ –  helmed by Horn).

A Secret Wish’s stock seems to keep rising year after year, gaining more fans and sounding better than ever. But Wishful Thinking is a weird project, to say the least. Co-remixer (alongside former tape op Bob Kraushaar) Paul Morley’s absurd liner notes quote Goethe and boast that the album is the result of ’39 studio hours’, which, by ZTT’s painstaking standards, doesn’t actually sound like much.

But it’s a thrilling, epic collection just the same, regurgitating many of the original album’s sonic motifs but in a different order and in a different place on the stereo spectrum. ‘Machined’ reimagines ‘P-Machinery’ as a mid-tempo piece of minimalism, featuring mainly Claudia Brucken’s vocals and gentle drums.

‘Jewelled’ fuses the two versions of ‘Duel’ from the original album, mixing her ‘angry’ vocals with the backing from the ‘pop’ version. It’s pretty funny and genuinely surreal.

Hidden elements embedded in the original mix are subtly revealed, like Lipson’s chiming guitars on ‘Laughing’. ‘Loving’ exposes and amplifies Andy Richards’ gorgeous piano and synth from ‘The Murder Of Love’, finally revealing it as the fantastic pop song it is.

The two versions of ‘Dr Mabuse’ bring out Horn’s genius and natural flair for the dynamic, showcasing not one but two brilliant bass vamps and a whole host of other sonic delights (thrillingly, one version is used in the absurd opening credits of John Hughes’s 1987 movie ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’).

But possibly the best track on Wishful Thinking is the closing ‘Thought’, an excerpt of the band’s version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’. It’s nothing less than a brutalist, industrial masterpiece.

All in all, it’s an epic, exciting hour of music, and a real one-off. For anyone still fascinated by A Secret Wish, as this writer is, it’s required listening. The band probably hated it, though Brucken did donate one of her paintings for use on the cover (but then she was married to Morley at the time…).

Steve Martin in…Homage To Steve!

My Steve Martin ‘thing’ probably peaked around 1989. I had just found his ‘Live!’ video (bought on the same day as The Blue Nile’s Hats, if memory serves) and loved his Wild And Crazy Guy LP, ‘borrowed’ from a family friend.

‘Live!’ was taken from a September 1978 gig at the Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles (supported on the night by The Blues Brothers), when Steve was about as big as a comedian can get. He was even on the cover of People magazine (or ‘Screw Up Your Life’ magazine, as he called it).

Back then, if there’d been anything like the marketing machine of today, he could have retired on the sales of Steve Martin bunny ears, Lucky Astrology Mood Watches or arrows-through-the-head alone.

So how did he do it? Or should that be why? As the cliché goes, maybe America was ready for stupid jokes after Vietnam and Watergate. Someone once said that Steve brought surrealism to the masses. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that movies like ‘Airplane’ wouldn’t have happened without him. But he had a philosophical, post-modern approach too, often starting out with the punchline and then working backwards – or never supplying one at all.

And he was a pretty damn decent magician, musician and juggler too.

And of course he was basically ‘in character’ on stage, an uptight, arrogant white guy in a white suit (remind you of anyone? Stop Making Sense indeed, though apparently the suit idea came from one-time roommate Martin Mull…). During the ‘with-it’, drug-fuelled 1970s, Steve was desperately trying (and failing) to ‘get down’, to be hip, cool and one step ahead of the audience. But the character generally failed, becoming grouchy and out of his depth, hence the famous ‘Excuuuuuuse…meeeeee!’ catchphrase.

Steve was also a Philosophy Major (I can’t say for sure if it influenced my choice to study the subject at university, but with hindsight maybe it did…) and his reminiscences of ‘the intellectual thing’ used to make me laugh a lot. ‘I studied the ethical questions: Is it OK to yell “Movie!” in a crowded fire house? The religious questions: Does the pope sh*t in the woods?’

Then there were the albums – his friend and movie producer Bill McEuen had been recording gigs since the mid-’70s. By ’76, Warner Bros were sniffing around. Again, it’s easy to forget how far ahead of his time Martin was here – stand-up comedy albums were extremely rare at the time, and he didn’t just enjoy some success but smashed it out of the park: Let’s Get Small, A Wild & Crazy Guy and Comedy Is Not Pretty all went either gold or platinum (and were almost impossible to find in the UK until fairly recently – I had to buy them at the much-lamented J&R Music World during a trip to New York in the mid-1990s).

By 1981’s The Steve Martin Brothers album, the game was up – it was his worst and lowest-selling record. Steve got out of stand-up and into movies. Again, he was way ahead of the curve and extremely influential – you could make a good case for the ’80s scene being wholly driven by comedian-turned-actors: Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, John Candy, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Barry Levinson, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd etc etc.

Since then, Steve has ploughed his own path, writing books, playing the banjo, getting into ‘serious’ acting with some aplomb (‘Grand Canyon’, ‘The Spanish Prisoner’). Some people will never forgive him. Dennis Pennis spoke for many when he zapped Steve with this cruel zinger in the late 1990s:

But hey, that’s my homage to Steve. And if there weren’t enough jokes for you… Excuuuuuse…meeee!

De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising: 30 Years Old Today

The citizens of Punxsutawney have the groundhog to tell them whether there’ll be an early spring (much to Phil Connors’ disgust). But my yardstick is generally: is it time to listen to 3 Feet High And Rising yet?

Perhaps prompted by the recent freakishly-warm weather in London, the answer is a resounding yes. Because De La Soul’s debut album, released 30 years ago today, can refresh the most jaded of pop palettes and may be the ultimate summer record.

At my school, it was all the rage and a huge relief from the incessant INXS, Simple Minds and U2. Probably because De La Soul were from the suburbs of Long Island rather than the inner city, they brought a playful spirit and much-needed humour to hip-hop. It also reminded older music fans (or – let’s be honest – music critics) of that other ‘summer of love’ anthem, Sgt Pepper, even if the band denied any knowledge of that album.

To my ears, it was the first time sampling was used to bring about a truly surreal vision of music. This was a carefree world where it was perfectly normal for a ‘how to speak French’ lesson to accompany The Turtles’ ‘You Showed Me’, or for Sly Stone’s ‘Poet’ to back up some nursery-rhyme rapping. Liberace, The Headhunters, Fats Domino; they were all fair game (though controversial – see below). If it sounded good, it was good.

There’s a silly-but-funny fake quiz show schtick running through the album and it’s not often you hear a whispered rap. Almost every track is under three minutes. There are rhymes about school, haircuts and soap, and if you don’t like one song, there’ll be another one along very shortly.

3 Feet High And Rising was the gateway to some brilliant retro music too, especially for my generation who were too young or not even born the first time around. A theory: it single-handedly led to a resurgence of interest in Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, early Michael Jackson and Funkadelic.

At the time of writing, the album is unavailable on streaming platforms, pending a stand-off between the band and Tommy Boy Records. Is it karmic payback for the boys being so trigger-happy with the samples? Who knows. But it doesn’t stop 3 Feet High And Rising being a classic of the ’80s or any other decade.