The Cult Movie Club: Southern Comfort (1981)

After the extended prologue, when Ry Cooder’s swampy blues riff slides in over a glorious widescreen shot of the Louisiana bayou, you know you’re watching a classic of its kind.

To this day, co-writer/director Walter Hill claims that the superb ‘Southern Comfort’ doesn’t directly allude to the Vietnam War, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise – set in 1973, his film concerns a motley group of weekend National Guardsmen whose sojourn into Cajun country (with the promise of prostitutes at the end of the road) turns into a desperate fight for survival when a foolish prank leaves them at the mercy of some particularly vengeful locals.

Hill prefers to call it a ‘displaced Western’, a film about escalating moral dilemmas in unfamiliar surroundings. That rings true too, but watching it again after ten years or so, I couldn’t help comparing it to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, another all-male classic about creeping, self-defeating paranoia, fudged leadership and dodgy group-think. ‘Southern Comfort’ might also be described as ‘The Warriors’ meets ‘Deliverance’. It’s that good.

This is a pre-irony, pre-CGI action movie, where men are men (the sort of men who might get a ‘phone call in a pub….on a landline’), decisions have consequences and vengeance is swift and fairly brutal. The action sequences are gripping, though never tawdry, and look extremely punishing for the cast – there’s a particularly realistic dog attack and a memorable quicksand incident. Apparently the shoot was long, cold and difficult, with camera tripods frequently sinking into the bayou.

The dialogue is fast and loose – the brain has to be in gear to pick up all the political/ethical nuances that fly by – and the acting styles deceptively ‘naturalistic’. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are superb as the reluctant heroes who must overcome their basically apolitical stances to become men of action and moral choice. Carradine in particular makes for a fascinating action-man (according to Hill, his character is a ‘Southern aristocrat’). The secondary cast of mainly unknowns (the ever-excellent Peter Coyote aside) is also superb.

But ‘Southern Comfort’ was a commercial dud on its 1981 release. Maybe, like ‘The Thing’, it’s far too stark a vision. But it certainly it spawned some new movie clichés and looks like an influence on many ’80s movies from ‘Aliens’ to ‘Predator’. It’s also a fascinating watch these days considering the state of the US – the film’s message seems to be that peace is impossible while there remain so many internal divisions and prejudices.

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Story Of A Song: Donald Fagen’s True Companion

Steely Dan’s breakup was officially announced on 17th June 1981 when Donald Fagen gave a scoop to journalist and long-time fan Robert Palmer in the New York Times. In the interview, Fagen didn’t rule out the possibility that he would one day reunite with Steely co-leader/co-songwriter Walter Becker, but neglected to mention that he had already returned to the studio as a solo artist.  

Until a few years ago, I assumed The Nightfly was Fagen’s ’80s debut, but the one-off track ‘True Companion’ preceded it by a year. It was part of the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack, an animated film based on the sex’n’slash fantasy comic book of the same name. Fagen used the song as an excuse to get back into the studio after a few years off.

‘True Companion’ was recorded at Automated Sound in New York and co-produced by Fagen and legendary engineer Elliot Scheiner (Dan helmer Gary Katz was busy producing Eye To Eye’s debut album). Lyrically, the song seemed to be a ‘Dark Star‘-esque meditation on the spiritually-bereft inhabitants of a spaceship, possibly narrated by God, or at least some kind of omniscient being…

Crewmen of the True Companion
I can see you’re tired of action
In this everlasting twilight
Home is just a sad abstraction

Just beyond the troubled skyways
Young men dream of fire and starshine
I’ve been dreaming of my own green world
Far across the reach of space time

Musically, the track showcased some exceptionally dense Fagen vocal harmonies (prefiguring a similar approach on The Nightfly‘s ‘Maxine’), and typically tasty Fender Rhodes playing by Steely regular Don Grolnick. But the first half of the tune was almost a mini guitar symphony for Steve Khan.

I asked Steve for his recollections of recording ‘True Companion’:

During those years, I think that Donald was trying  to find the confidence to move forward with a solo career because, after Gaucho, it seemed that he and Walter were going to need a long, long break! “True Companion” was one of a few experiments Donald recorded just to test the waters, as it were. To be in the studio with old friends and bandmates like Don Grolnick, Will Lee and Steve Jordan and with Elliot Scheiner engineering, nothing could have felt more familiar. Actually, for working with Donald, things went really fast. I would imagine that I played the electric parts first, then overdubbed the solo, and thereafter the acoustic steel-string. With the Les Paul, I know that I was playing REALLY loud in the room, but I did that because I felt that this was the underlying attitude of the song. It was a blend of subtlety and power. So I tried to give it both…’

On the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack album, ‘True Companion’ sat incongruously alongside tracks by Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Journey, Sammy Hagar and Stevie Nicks, a state of affairs that no doubt tickled Fagen. But, most importantly, he had taken his first major steps back into the recording studio, and by late summer 1981 was recording The Nightfly.

Almost 15 years later, a reunited Steely Dan also played ‘True Companion’ live on their second comeback tour:

The Human League’s Dare: 35 Years Old Today

human-leagueVirgin Records, released 16th October 1981

Produced by Martin Rushent/The Human League

Recorded at Genetic Sound Studios, Reading, Berkshire, UK

UK album chart position: #1
US album chart position: #3

Singles released: ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ (UK #12)
‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ (UK #3)
‘Open Your Heart’ (UK #6)
‘Don’t You Want Me’ (UK #1, US #1)

Phil Oakey (vocals/co-composer): ‘Martin really knew what pop was. He could take your mad sounds and make them pop. I still reckon “The Sound Of The Crowd” is one of the maddest songs that’s ever got in the Top 20. “Love Action” hasn’t got a proper chorus. I remember smashing the phone after I was told “Don’t You Want Me” was number 1 in America. It’s so much to live up to. Everyone and their grandma knows about you so no one wants to wear your badges any more…’

Martin Rushent: ‘To a large extent, I was their band. I was certainly their drummer because I programmed all the rhythms and made all the decisions about the grooves. I learned a lot from working with the arranger Johnny Harris. He was bandleader for all the show singers like Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. I learned about voicing instruments and how the most important element of music is silence. If you listen to Dare, there’s lots of space in the songs and lots of little parts and you can sing them all…’

King Crimson’s Discipline: 35 Years Old Today

crimson-coverEG Records, released 10th October 1981

14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset. But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming. He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):

Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works:
1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely.
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture.
3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.

So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:

1. Repeat yourself.
2. Take your time.
3. Leave room.
4. Listen to everybody else.
5. Develop a new set of clichés.
6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds.
7. Listen to the sound of what you play.

Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.

There are other Fripp stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.

The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.

There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.

Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.

Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.

Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).

Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood. By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.

As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’ He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa.

Level 42’s ‘Level 42’: 35 Years Old Today

levelPolydor Records, released 1st August 1981

Here’s another key exhibit to support the motion ‘1981: The Greatest Ever Pop Year’. When three caulkheads – bassist/vocalist Mark King and brothers Phil (drums) and Boon Gould (guitar) – hooked up with keyboardist/vocalist Mike Lindup in London, they were fairly speedily signed to indie label Elite Records.

After adding their ‘fifth member’ Wally Badarou – who had just begun his epochal keyboard work with Grace Jones – they released the ‘Love Meeting Love‘ 12” single in the summer of 1980. It got the attention of Polydor, who speedily re-released it and then the follow-up ‘Flying On The Wings Of Love‘. Both stalled outside the UK top 40 but there was suddenly a massive industry buzz about this band.

At this stage in their career, Level 42 were very much lumped in with the new wave of Brit-funk and jazz/funk bands, leading to an instant following, lots of noisy club gigs and many a provincial Soul Weekender alongside ‘Funk Mafia’ DJs with nicknames like Froggie and Wolfie. None of this harmed Level’s popularity, though in truth they had little in common with the dancefloor scene – their sound was a much edgier proposition, with more guitar, a distinct jazz/rock influence and a punky energy. As one fan apparently commented to Boon after a November 1980 all-dayer supporting Shakatak: ‘We didn’t expect Status Quo’. No matter – Polydor signed them to a five-year deal soon after that gig.

Legendary Bluesbreakers/Fleetwood Mac producer Mike Vernon was chosen to helm their debut album – Mark King was apparently most impressed that he had worked on Focus’s Moving Waves. Vernon turned out to be a superb choice. They all convened first at the very haunted Vineyard Studios in South-East London (later owned by Stock, Aitken and Waterman) to record ‘Love Games’. It gave them their first hit in March 1981, scraping into the UK singles chart at number 39, and leading to their first appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’.

But these guys lived and breathed music. Though songwriting didn’t come particularly easy early on in their career, there was an infectious, thrilling, percussive propulsion to their sound. It helped that they were all drummers (with the exception of Boon Gould). Obvious influences such as Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Stanley Clarke merged with less obvious ones like Yes and Fairport Convention (mainly Phil Gould’s passions) to produce a very tasty brew, naturally easy on the ear. And after barely a year of singing, Mark King’s vocals were even starting to match his prodigious talent on the bass.

Level 42 presents a great variety of material littered with intricate, memorable arrangements. Wally Badarou’s mastery shines through throughout the album but especially on ’43’ – on the right channel, he sprinkles in shards of Prophet 5 synth, almost taking on the role of rhythm guitarist.

Why Are You Leaving‘ is a superb quiet-storm ballad, not unlike something George Benson might have come up with in the Breezin’ era. Stanley Clarke is a towering influence – ‘Heathrow’ nicks the ‘Lopsy Lu’ shuffle (and also features a fantastic Gary Barnacle electric sax solo) while ‘Dune Tune‘ rather spiffingly riffs on ‘Desert Song’ from Clarke’s classic School Days album. Phil Gould’s sparkling glockenspiel solo on ‘Starchild’ only emphasised how versatile the band really were.

slipstream

Level 42 is also a decidedly more lush and expensive-sounding album than any other ‘Brit-funk’ band managed to produce. The evidence is Slipstream, a compilation which featured the band’s ‘Turn It On’ alongside other contemporary bands such as Light Of The World, Freeez, Morrissey Mullen and Incognito. The Level track sticks out a mile.

Level 42 reached number 20 in the UK album chart, apparently a pleasant surprise to Polydor. Two UK tours followed in quick succession before they embarked on a seven-date German trip supporting The Police, which, by all accounts, didn’t go particularly well. During one gig, a firecracker was hurled in the general direction of Mark King, lodging itself between his bass and elbow. Looking down, he recoiled from the mic in horror, believing he had been shot!

Despite Level 42‘s solid chart placing, there was still uncertainty about the future of the band – King was headhunted by Jeff Beck for a possible power trio with Simon Phillips on drums, and a few jam sessions ensued. Also, Barnacle’s band Leisure Process had recruited Mark and Phil for their upcoming album and there was talk of the them making the permanent switch. Thankfully, neither project materialised – one of the great bands of the 1980s were back in business. Next stop: The Pursuit Of Accidents.

Jazz/Rock’s Tin Machine: The Clarke/Duke Project

stanley_clarke__george_duke-the_clarke__duke_project(epic)Epic Records, released 9th April 1981

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989?

6/10

This one really divides people. The Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project could and should have been a lot better given the talent involved and their track record. But it shouldn’t be judged by jazz standards – by the early ’80s, these two protagonists of ‘fusion’ realised that jazz/rock had hit a massive dead end. A fresh approach was called for. Earth, Wind & Fire’s effortless blending of funk, soul, disco, jazz, Latin and rock seemed to offer a new direction to all kinds of musicians, including Clarke and Duke.

So, leaving any kind of jazz credibility at the door, our heroes embraced their inner George Clintons, Frank Zappas and Stephen Bishops to make a really weird but occasionally enjoyable album of funk, disco, AOR and cheesy soul balladry (it’s surely up there in the ‘least classifiable albums of the ’80s’ list). In short, this was Stanley and George’s Tin Machine – you were either for or against.

Stanley_Clarke_&_George_Duke

My schoolfriend Seb and I were (and are) huge Stanley fans, but even we eyed this with some trepidation when we came across it around 1989. It had a pretty dodgy reputation even by ’80s Stanley standards. It’s certainly neither artists’ best work, but it’s worth a listen.

So, straight in at the deep end. It’s fair to say that most John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon fans will struggle with the ‘Louie Louie’ cover… But it’s fun – Clarke and Duke deliver great solos and the vocal jiving is good value.

Clarke’s ‘I Just Want To Love You’ is a minor disco/soul classic with a great bassline (later appropriated for Kylie’s ‘Spinning Around’). ‘Touch And Go’ is very pretty in a post-‘Sailing’ kind of way while the vapid ‘Sweet Baby’ miraculously delivered a big US hit (#19). The closing ‘Find A Way’ is effective and quite unique in its way, a kind of pomp-funk/rock epic with a cool descending bridge and interesting structure.

stanley-clarke-george-duke-the-clarke-duke-project-02

JR Robinson’s ultra-solid, ultra-dry drums are very high in the mix and sometimes feel like they need a bit of air. Clarke impresses with a huge range of basses, guitars, sitars and cellos (and some very Santana-ish Piccolo lead bass playing) while Duke sticks mostly to squelchy synth basslines, acoustic piano and an occasional bit of trademark Mini Moog.

The album sounds very stripped back to modern ears and has a slightly ‘demo’ feel to it, but it was a big hit. Two further collaborations followed, lasting into the early ’90s. One thing’s for sure – Stanley and George were great friends until the latter’s death in 2013, and you can really hear it in the music they made together.