Frank Sinatra: She Shot Me Down 40 Years On (Stephen Sondheim RIP)

It’s probably not much of a surprise that Frank didn’t exactly thrive in the 1980s, but it’s funny thinking of She Shot Me Down, released 40 years ago this month, touching down in a landscape of AOR, yacht rock and new wave.

It was his penultimate solo studio album (the last was 1984’s Quincy Jones-produced LA Is My Lady) and the last he made for his own Reprise label (still extant and still a subsidiary of Warners).

It has its fans (esteemed jazz writer Gary Giddins called it ‘his last great album’) but is generally considered only a partial success. I’d agree with that. Sinatra’s majestic voice falters, and is subject to an uncharacteristically poor recording/mixing job: he’s generally mixed much too high with a ‘room’ reverb that quickly grates.

The grim album cover design doesn’t help either. But She Shot Me Down does feature four absolute classics that easily compare with his greatest work of the 1950s, regretful portraits of lost love that suit his world-weary voice perfectly.

‘Going Going Gone’, penned by the recently departed Stephen Sondheim from the musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, features a sumptuous melody and witty lyric, easily transcending its wafer-thin ‘rock’ arrangement.

‘Thanks For The Memory’, originally written in 1938 and famously Bob Hope’s signature tune, features some nice updated lyrics by Leo Robin that perfectly suit the occasion (‘Thanks for the memory/Of letters I destroyed/Books that we enjoyed/Tonight the way things look I need a book by Sigmund Freud’ etc.).

‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ is a superb co-write by producer Don Costa. But Gordon Jenkins’ ‘I Loved Her’ may be the album’s standout. He was of course a frequent Sinatra arranger of note and occasional composer (‘Good-Bye’), but this is his best song, a tragic tale of a mismatched couple that we can all relate to.

The faltering piano solo (played by Sinatra?) perfectly conjures up the feeling of bar-room regret, and Sinatra’s pronunciations of ‘pie’, ‘movies’, ‘Dodgers’, ‘noon’ and ‘saloon’ linger long in the memory.

Frank, Gordon and Stephen: good-bye and thank you.

The Cult Movie Club (with spoilers): Duel (1971/1981)

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Duel’ was one of the first movies that really got to me, and it remains one of my all-time favourites.

I was already a confirmed car and truck fan when it was shown on British terrestrial TV almost exactly 40 years ago, so was glued to the screen from the first minute.

The faceless truck driver scared me, the chases thrilled me, but it was the ending that had the most impact. I just couldn’t get my head around leaving David Mann (Dennis Weaver) literally staring into the abyss after vanquishing his nemesis.

‘Duel’, adapted by the great Richard Matheson from his own short story, premiered on American TV as an ABC Movie Of The Week 50 years ago this month, and was later released as a feature with a few added scenes. It did for trucks what ‘Jaws’ did for sharks and ‘Psycho’ did for showers.

It’s arguably the ultimate road-rage movie – lest we forget, it was inspired by a real event experienced by Matheson when he and a friend were driving home soon after hearing of JFK’s assassination.

‘Duel’ was filmed in just 13 days mainly around Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles. Spielberg meticulously mapped/storyboarded every shot, many of which were achieved with the low-angle ‘camera car’ specially built for Peter Yates’ classic 1968 thriller ‘Bullitt’.

Spielberg had earned his big break after working on TV shows such as ‘Columbo’ and ‘Marcus Welby MD’, but had to fight his corner with the ABC executives who wanted him to shoot ‘Duel’ mostly in a studio, using ‘poor man’s process’ (shades of ‘Jaws’, which the suits mostly wanted him to shoot in a tank)!

Gregory Peck was the first choice for the role of David Mann (geddit?) – Spielberg heartily approved as it would have meant the movie would get a theatrical release. But when Peck declined, the director loved the idea of casting Weaver, mainly based on his manic performance in Orson Welles’ ‘Touch Of Evil’.

The truck is a brilliant baddie, and accordingly it was put into make-up every day, a team of assistants applying oil, muck and dead bugs. It was driven by the great Hollywood stuntman Cary Loftin, while another, Dale Van Sickel, mostly drove the car, though Weaver did some of his own stunts. Like this one:

Comedian Dick Whittington’s initial crank-call sets up the main theme of the film, a theme that both Matheson and Spielberg ratchet up throughout. Is Mann one of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’, a lower-middle-class, hen-pecked schlub who ‘wouldn’t take it any more’?

He is certainly the ultimate everyman, with a fairly snobbish attitude towards the ‘locals’, but we still like him, mainly due to Weaver’s classic performance.

Of course Mann could give up the duel at any minute, turn around and drive home. But he doesn’t. His decision to nail the truck driver is possibly the most terrifying moment in the film (with echoes of Sam Peckinpah’s movie ‘Straw Dogs’).

The school bus scene (one of several added for the feature-length version) is possibly the standout. It’s the coverage and editing – the kids’ mocking faces, the bus driver’s naivety, Weaver’s humourless striving, the contrast between the kids’ innocence and the adult duel operating in a twilight world of petty grudges and micro-aggressions.

(Interestingly, ‘Duel’ is arguably Spielberg’s most ‘adult’ film and thus, for me, avoids the sentimentality and ‘childhood perils’ that plague some of the later films. This excellent – if controversial – article is a potent and worthwhile contribution to the theme.)

The truck, a 1961 Peterbilt 351, shot from the ‘Bullitt’ camera car

For such a simple story, Matheson’s plotting is exemplary. We should be able to second-guess Mann’s actions and motives at every step, but we don’t. Weaver/Mann’s voiceover takes us through all potential courses of action.

And then there’s Billy Goldenberg’s brilliant soundtrack. Of course it occasionally hints at Bernard Herrmann but also stakes out its own soundworld with a delicious cocktail of zither, bells, piano, strings, ethnic percussion and harp.

Thankfully there has never been a remake of ‘Duel’ but its influence is everywhere. Spielberg himself continues to view it with great affection and has referenced it in many films, from ‘Jaws’ to ‘1941’.

Finally, back to the ending on the cliff edge. What’s left for Mann? Will he ever recover? What will his punishment be, if any? Will he return to his wife and kids, or ‘drop out’ and join a hippie commune?

Then there are the rumours that the stricken truck is still visible at the bottom of Soledad Canyon. Approach it if you dare. Just don’t end up like David Mann, or the psychopathic trucker for that matter…

Further reading: ‘Steven Spielberg & Duel: The Making Of A Film Career’ by Stephen Awalt

Jennifer Holliday: And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going

At this late stage of the game, it’s very rare to hear a piece of music that has you gripped from bar one.

But that happened recently when Jennifer Holliday’s ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ turned up on Forgotten 80s.

The song was vaguely familiar. Then the penny dropped – I was a big fan of ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ and always loved Jim Carrey’s performance on the final episode (see below) in 1998, but didn’t have a clue at the time that it was a cover version.

But back to Jennifer Holliday. She first performed ’And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ at the age of just 20 when she took on the role of Effie Wright in the musical ‘Dreamgirls’, which opened on 21 December 1981 at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. Written by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger, the song ends Act One with a dramatic flourish.

Released as a David Foster-produced single in 1982, it got to #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Best Female R’n’B Vocal Performance Grammy for Holliday. It’s an electrifying vocal performance, fusing soul and gospel and injecting a touch of humour to boot.

Holliday was subsequently one of the first signings to the Geffen label, her first solo album Feel My Soul produced and co-written by Earth, Wind & Fire mainman Maurice White – it reached #31 on the Billboard pop chart and was Grammy-nominated.

Holliday was then featured vocalist and arranger of The New Jersey Mass Choir on Foreigner’s #1 single ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, a performance which reportedly reduced the song’s co-writer/guitarist Mick Jones to tears when recorded at New York’s Right Track Studios during summer 1984

Less successful was a second album for Geffen, 1987’s Get Close To My Love, but Holliday has continued to perform to this day in both secular and non-secular formats. More power to her elbow, and bravo for an absolutely spellbinding vocal performance (Jim’s not bad either, sounding occasionally a bit like Mike Patton).

 

Story Of A Song: Queen/David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’

In the immediate aftermath of Bowie’s fabled appearance in the Broadway production of ‘The Elephant Man’, and despite the commercial success of the Scary Monsters album, at least in the UK, his thoughts were far from music in early 1981.

The sorts of modern nightmares he had sung about on ‘It’s No Game’ were becoming all too real. He was particularly shaken by the death of his friend John Lennon in December 1980.

It was time for a reassessment and reboot. First to go was a proposed world tour, originally pencilled in for summer 1981. Instead, Switzerland seemed as good a place as any to hide out, at least initially.

In July, Bowie was at Montreux’s Mountain Studios, recording his vocals for the ‘Cat People’ movie theme song with co-producer/co-writer Giorgio Moroder.

Queen were in an adjacent room recording the Hot Space album, and, when Bowie popped in to say hello to their drummer Roger Taylor, a long-overdue collaboration was on the cards (Bowie was also keen to bend Freddie Mercury’s ear about Queen’s label EMI, as he was pretty desperate to get off RCA).

It was apparently no walk in the park for either party though: guitarist Brian May recalled that ‘to have his ego mixed with ours made for a very volatile mixture’ while Taylor also confirmed that ‘certain egos were slightly bruised along the way’.

But the blend of personalities and approaches paid off; in a feverish, booze-fuelled few hours, described by engineer/co-producer David Richards as ‘a complete jam session and madness in the studio’, something started happening.

With Bowie running between piano and 12-string guitar (his D-based chordal concept is not dissimilar to David Gilmour’s work on Pink Floyd’s contemporaneous ‘Run Like Hell’), a groove, melody and basic song structure emerged.

Bowie encouraged Mercury to improvise on the microphone – apparently the latter’s wordless ad-libs were only meant as placeholders, to be replaced with real lyrics, but they were left in when no-one could think of anything better.

Bowie reportedly then ‘comped’ both vocal improvisations to give them something to build upon, and then lyrics were considered. The nascent song was initially titled ‘People On Streets’, but Bowie’s push to call it ‘Under Pressure’ led to the emergence of a more focused composition.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of Bowie and Mercury’s vocal styles. Bowie struggles with Queen’s natural tendency to break out the pomp-rock but he reins it back in with the moving, double-tracked ‘This is our last dance’ section.

It’s also instructive to hear his vocal mastery during the section; close listening reveals that he takes short, deep breaths at exactly the same points throughout, demonstrating that the part was meticulously worked out in advance.

It’s also impressive that neither Mercury nor Bowie ever ‘pop’ the microphone in their delivery of the word ‘Pressure’ – no mean feat.

Still, it’s quite a bold song lyrically. There aren’t many #1 singles with lines like ‘It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/Watching some good friends scream let me out’.

It’s not surprising Bowie’s mind was on the healing nature of love in 1981. It’s possible the song was a reaction to the street uprisings going on throughout the UK during spring and summer. The result is a kind of ‘Heroes’ for the early 1980s. Also it’s possibly a prelude to his involvement with Band Aid/Live Aid later in the decade.

It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s infamous Lord’s Prayer at the 1992 Freddie tribute concert at Wembley Stadium took place soon after his performance of ‘Under Pressure’ in duet with Annie Lennox.

The track was mixed in New York by Queen alone without any input from Bowie, a decision that apparently divided opinion; Taylor considered it ‘one of the best things Queen have ever done’ while Bowie surmised that ‘it was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit.’ It’s certainly far from a hi-fidelity recording.

EMI were understandably convinced ‘Under Pressure’ was a hit, Bowie and Queen less so. But it entered the UK charts at #8 40 years ago this week, and then summarily knocked The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ off the top spot on 15 November, staying at #1 for two weeks.

In the US,  it reached #29, not particularly impressive but nonetheless Bowie’s best chart placing since ‘Golden Years’ almost six years before.

David Mallet’s clever video used stock/public domain footage to interesting effect, though it was banned by the BBC (though I definitely remember seeing it on telly at the time) for including a few seconds of footage from an IRA bomb in Belfast.

As for Bowie, he quickly moved on to the filming of Alan Clarke’s excellent TV play ‘Baal’ in August 1981, rounding off an interesting year for him.

On a personal level, I recall that November 1981 was exactly the time when the pop music bug really got me. I can remember where I was when I first heard ‘Under Pressure’, and many tracks from that month’s chart hold a special place in my heart to this day.

Further reading: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ by Chris O’Leary

‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

The Cult Movie Club: Halloween II (1981) 40 Years On

A babysitting uncle (later reprimanded by my mum!) showed my brother and I John Carpenter’s classic 1978 film ‘Halloween’, recorded from TV after its first (edited) UK showing, sometime in 1982 or early 1983.

I loved it but it scared the bejesus out of me. Well, I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare on Halloween.

But Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel, released 40 years ago this weekend, was a definite no-no. There was no way my parents would let my brother and I watch it, though I distinctly remember us creeping along the upstairs corridor and spying on them watching the rented video with friends.

‘Halloween’ has of course been through numerous/confusing sequels and reboots. The new ‘Halloween Kills‘ is supposedly a ‘proper’ sequel to the rebooted ‘original’ of 2018 (which I tried to watch recently, but didn’t last beyond the first five minutes…).

But back to John Carpenter’s original 1978 classic. It was a huge hit. Once the money started rolling in, a sequel was on the cards, one that Carpenter was unable to veto due to his original contract (he also allegedly missed out on a huge amount of royalties too).

So he reluctantly hooked up again with Debra Hill to write the screenplay and co-produce. The result was one of the last big ‘slasher’ hits, outside of the endless ‘Friday The 13th’ sequels, earning around $25 million worldwide against a $2.5 million budget. And this was in the days when sequels were not commonplace.

But how does ‘Halloween II’ stand up today? First, the good stuff:

The camerawork
Director of photography Dean Cundey was lured back from the original, passing up the opportunity to work on Spielberg’s ‘Poltergeist’, and his original angles and Panaglide compositions elevate the film way beyond the standard slasher fare.

The hospital setting
It’s a great idea to set the film in a suburban hospital, and gives a claustrophobic sense of isolation, of course a descendant of Carpenter’s ‘Assault On Precinct 13′ (via, originally, Howard Hawks’ ‘Rio Bravo’ and George Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’).

Continuity
It’s a neat concept to start the film right where the original ‘Halloween’ ended.

Donald Pleasence
Once again he fully embraces the role of Dr Sam Loomis. He takes it seriously and does a stand-up job, complete with a few memorable line readings.

The Chordettes’ ‘Mr Sandman’ intro and end credits
A very creepy choice, possibly influenced by the use of music in ‘The Shining’.

But then there’s the bad stuff:

Lack of Jamie Lee Curtis
She spends most of the movie either in a hospital bed or limping/crawling around (wearing a very odd wig). As good a performance as she gives, the film suffers from her inertia.

Too much dialogue/exposition
There are way too many slow, boring plot/dialogue longeurs.

Lack of engaging/likable characters
As workmanlike as the mostly young cast are, they can’t replicate the natural rapport that existed between Jamie Lee, Nancy Loomis, PJ Soles etc. in the original film.

Dick Warlock as The Shape
The original film mostly used Nick Castle as The Shape, but experienced Hollywood stuntman Warlock got the role here, and he moves way too slowly and stiffly (and the William Shatner mask doesn’t quite fit…). And the closing fire stunt may have won him some brownie points in the industry but looks absurd now.

Gratuitous gore
Carpenter took a look at the first assembly of ‘Halloween II’ and decided it was too long and not scary enough. He shot a few additional scenes, adding some gore and spikes. Sadly this resulted in too many bad memories of standard slasher movies, and resulted in a lot of dodgy reviews. Carpenter was also fairly disgusted with himself for ‘messing’ with another director’s work – ‘I did something I don’t believe in. I did something I would hate for anybody to do with me. It was an evil thing to do and I didn’t enjoy any of it,’ he told biographer Gilles Boulenger.

Music
Alan Howarth overdubbed onto Carpenter’s original 16-track tapes, adding copious synths and and drum machines – there’s a lot of bluster but unfortunately Howarth adds little to the original soundtrack.

In conclusion: I’d argue it’s a decent-enough sequel, despite the obvious problems. The last 15 minutes offer creeps, shocks and thrills, and the hospital setting works excellently.

The movingtheriver.com rating: 6/10.

Now, I must go and answer that door. Damn kids…

Associates: Fourth Drawer Down 40 Years On

The Associates gave good title: ‘Tell Me It’s Easter On Friday’, ‘Kitchen Person’, ‘White Car In Germany’, ‘Q Quarters’, ‘No’, ‘Those First Impressions’, ’18 Carat Love Affair’, ‘Nude Spoons’, ‘Party Fears Two’ etc. etc.

The first four appeared on Fourth Drawer Down, released 40 years ago this weekend.

Mostly co-produced by 19-year-old Flood (Depeche Mode, U2), it was a collection of the increasingly bizarre singles released by the ‘band’ during 1981, all of which featured strongly on the Independent charts.

The Associates were yet another impressive 1980s pop duo, at least in their early incarnation. Billy Mackenzie was arguably the greatest singer of the post-punk era, while Alan Rankine was a key guitarist (and talented multi-instrumentalist) alongside John McGeoch, Charlie Burchill, Will Sergeant et al.

They were also arch music-biz pranksters, years before The KLF, good-looking, talented lads milking the record companies for all they were worth.

Newly departed from Fiction Records, with ex-Cure bassist Michael Dempsey in tow, the three spent 1981 holed up in their St John’s Wood flat by day and Willesden’s Morgan (later Battery) Studios by night.

If taken in an amount just over their recommended dose, Quiet Life (also an ‘influence’ on David Sylvian/Japan?) health tablets would give a nice buzz, found in the ‘fourth drawer down’ of their bedroom cabinet.

It was a hedonistic, musically expansive period. Experimentation was king. It wasn’t unusual to see Billy singing down a vacuum tube or through tracing paper, while Rankine occasionally applied a water-filled balloon to his guitar strings.

Vintage synths were layered with dulcimer, xylophone, early drum machines, ‘funky’ bass and mad fuzz-toned guitar. It was a brittle, lo-fi sound, influenced by Bowie, Roxy, Sparks, Ennio Morricone and John Barry, quite insane in places.

The scary, majestic ‘White Car In Germany’ was the logical conclusion to all of that icy, post-Heroes Euro-grandeur, but is it a pastiche? ‘Lisp your way through Zurich/Walk on eggs in Munich’, croons Billy. It’s impossible to say, but that’s part of the fun.

The brilliant ‘Q Quarters’ is strongly reminiscent of Scott Walker’s ‘70s/’80s soundworld, and comes complete with Billy’s coughing solo. Superbly chaotic ‘The Associate’ is invaded by a screaming fit and what sounds like a major vacuum-cleaner malfunction.

Some of it may remind one of early Cocteau Twins (particularly Mackenzie’s strident vocals and oblique lyrics), early Suede and the work of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Propaganda from later in the decade (Trevor Horn apparently almost produced a solo Mackenzie album around 1987, sadly yet another what-if in this gifted artist’s short life).

Less than a year later, aided by some more streamlined material, Warners money and the excellent producer Mike Hedges (who also worked on ‘White Car In Germany’ and ‘The Associate’), they spent nine months as bona fide pop stars in the UK.

But nothing ever sounded as singular as Fourth Drawer Down. And don’t miss out on the wacky B-sides, newly added to the remastered 2-CD version. Also worth checking out is their extraordinary Peel Session from April 1981.

Further reading: ‘The Glamour Chase’ by Tom Doyle

‘Rip It Up’ by Simon Reynolds

MTV @ 40: The First Five Years

Like most good ideas, it was a deceptively simple one: music radio, but on TV.

When the Warner Bros./American Express-bankrolled MTV (Music Television) launched 40 years ago this month, kicking off with The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, the music business was in a post-Saturday Night Fever slump.

But global record sales doubled between 1981 and 1990. Like it or hate it, MTV had a huge role to play. Its story also has fascinating echoes of the music business in the 2020s. But how did it revolutionise the industry so quickly?

In the early ’80s, video-making was a veritable Wild West, an almost-anything-goes environment. There were undoubtedly some shenanigans which wouldn’t win any #woke awards these days but, interestingly, it was predominantly women who ran video shoots, as producers and production designers.

Though their offices were based in New York, MTV was only initially available in the Midwest and suburban areas, as these were the places that had cable laid (leading to a veritable industrial revolution after the iconic ‘I Want My MTV!’ promo spots). Sonically, it was also important that MTV insisted on stereo audio from day one.

The localisation of MTV led to a big grassroots following for bands, particularly British ones, almost overnight. It also led to record companies getting very granular with sales; they paid closer attention, watching with interest if a band took off in one area. Labels started to take MTV very seriously indeed.

Then there was the Second British Invasion: a whole legion of young British acts (ABC, Flock Of Seagulls, Eurythmics, Culture Club, Cure, Billy Idol, Bananarama etc.) emerged in the early 1980s who took to videos like a duck to water.

They wowed Middle America, helped enormously by gifted Brit directors such as David Mallet (whose groundbreaking work on ‘The Kenny Everett Video Show’ from 1978 to 1980 ushered in many music-video tropes), Julien Temple, Steve Barron, Godley & Creme, Nigel Dick, Don Letts and Tim Pope.

But, in a curious echo of the current streaming craze, it seems the major labels were not prepared for the video revolution. They didn’t understand it and were suspicious of giving their content away for free.

So they did what they usually do: shafted the artists. Video budgets became recoupable fees that came straight out of the artists’ profits. Artists were to all intents and purposes paying for their own videos.

The rise of MTV also meant that now the emphasis was on killer tracks rather than albums. It was a big problem for some acts, and the 1980s became synonomous with one-hit wonders.

Rolling Stone and the trade magazines regularly trashed MTV in its first few years, and David Bowie questioned the lack of Black artists amidst frequent charges of racism.

But, by 1984, everything had changed. In the bumper year for Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Madonna, it was clear that MTV was the tail wagging the dog. The naïve, experimental era was over.

Post-‘Thriller’, more and more money was being thrown at videos and every director wanted to put their stamp on the material.

Also, by 1984, thanks to advertising revenue, MTV’s margins were huge. They were dictating to record companies, not the other way round. MTV didn’t have to pay royalties to artists or labels for showing videos. There was no ‘playlist’ per se, so they could pick and choose what they played.

It couldn’t last. The big major labels demanded a royalty to play their videos in 1984, threatening withdrawal of their products, and they eventually got it.

The first few hours of MTV’s launch day is a fascinating watch, showing how rooted in the 1970s it was when it started out, featuring REO Speedwagon, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, Gerry Rafferty, Todd Rundgren, The Buggles, Lynyrd Skynyrd (and TWO videos each of Pat Benatar, Split Enz and Rod Stewart!) and showing the dearth of decent contemporary videos.

The gauntlet had been laid down and it didn’t take long for some very creative people to pick it up.

Next time: the videos that made MTV during its first five years on the air.

Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby

‘I Want My MTV’ by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum