The Cult Movie Club: Fourteen Days In May (1987)

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a documentary comes along that makes you question everything, puts a new slant on life and death, the whole shebang. Or just gives you a damn good scare. Paul Hamann’s ‘Fourteen Days In May’ definitely fits the bill.

Shot over two weeks during the summer of 1987 at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary – AKA Parchman Farm – ‘Fourteen Days In May’ follows a young black man Edward Johnson as he prepares for – and, with the help of his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, tries to evade – the gas chamber.

First shown on the BBC over 30 years ago, it has become a landmark film. Similar areas have recently been explored by Werner Herzog, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, but arguably ‘Fourteen Days In May’ trumps all of them for sheer emotional impact.

It explores the inner workings of a prison geared up for taking human life. Astonishing shots shed light on a kind of modern slavery, with policemen on horseback brandishing shotguns, calling out loud reprimands and instructions to large groups of (almost exclusively) young black detainees as they dig ditches or clear roadside vegetation.

Elsewhere we are witness to the last few minutes of another (white) inmate’s life as he is strapped into the electric chair, though thankfully we don’t see the moment of truth. The gallows humour of both the killers and killed will linger long in the memory.

As ‘Fourteen Days In May’ moves painfully and inexorably on, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnson is innocent. But no-one can do anything about it. Various (black and white) prison officers bravely profess their doubts as to his guilt, while Johnson’s family rally around the quiet, unfailingly polite young man, singing him songs to keep his spirits up.

Hamann breaks the fourth wall to says his goodbyes to Johnson in a memorable scene. But shorn of a voiceover or title cards, ‘Fourteen Days In May’ offers no explicit critique of capital punishment. It doesn’t need to. The facts do that for themselves.

It would seem churlish and pointless not to reveal the ‘ending’ of the film here – Edward Johnson meets his maker. The crushing coda reveals that a young black woman came forward after the execution to verify that she saw him in a pool hall during the time of the alleged crime, but when reporting this to a white police officer soon after was threateningly advised to mind her own business.

What do we take away from ‘Fourteen Days In May’? The only correct response would seem to be rage. And fear. But after that, there’s a helplessness and a slow-burning disgust. The only slight light at the end of the tunnel is the knowledge that it was in direct response to this documentary that the Lifelines organisation was set up, arranging pen pals for death row prisoners. Stafford Smith has also founded Reprieve.

Is America still like this? Over to you. The suspicion would have to be that it is.

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Story Of A Song: Jill Jones’ ‘Violet Blue’

When Prince appeared on the box the other day, my mum expressed her approval. I ask why, and without hesitation she offered: ‘He respected and promoted women’. It struck me initially as a weird reason but upon further reflection seemed spot-on.

He wrote many songs from a female perspective in the early ’80s, many of which have never seen the light of day. Then there was Vanity/Apollonia 6 – dubious acts for some, but without too much moral adjustment you could interpret them as ‘women reclaiming their right to enjoy sex’.

Then there were Prince’s striking collaborations with a variety of strong, independent characters: Ingrid Chavez, Sheila E, Sheena Easton, Dale Bozzio, Mavis Staples, Cat Glover, Elisa Fiorillo, Bonnie Raitt, Nona Hendryx, Wendy & Lisa, Susan Rogers and Peggy McCreary. How many other male pop icons can boast such a coterie of female cohorts?

Then there was Jill Jones. With hindsight, her 1987 debut album, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records, is one of the great missed opportunities of his career, and its standout song ‘Violet Blue’ particularly demonstrates why.

The album started in the summer of 1983 during the filming of ‘Purple Rain’ (featuring Jill’s less-than-stellar cameo), when she replaced Prince’s guide vocal on ‘Mia Bocca’. Sadly he didn’t find time to resume work on the record until over two years later. Consequently, it’s very uneven, with some decent material (‘For Love’, ‘My Man’) mixed in with middling Prince outtakes, covers and B-sides (‘All Day, All Night’, ‘G-Spot’, ‘With You’) and undone by rushed arrangements and drastic changes in tone.

‘Violet Blue’, recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound in October 1986, was the last song put down for the album. Quite simply, it shows what the record could have been, and, frankly, how much Prince (and Jill) had developed between 1983 and 1986 – the vocal intro and accordion breakdown are two cases in point, not to mention the interesting chord progression and superb horn (Eric Leeds) and string (Clare Fischer) arrangements. Jill delivers a knockout vocal too, even throwing in a neat little Nancy Wilson impression via Dinah Washington.

Sadly the Jill Jones album sank without trace. She has recorded intermittently since, contributing a great guest vocal on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘You Do Me’ and playing low-key gigs. She’s always a refreshing presence.

Deacon Blue: Raintown

I missed the recent 30th anniversary of Raintown probably because I was surprised it was originally released as early as 1st May 1987. A famous ‘sleeper’ record, it eventually crawled up to #14 in the UK album charts but remained in the top 100 for 18 months off the back of some single re-releases and constant touring.

Later on in Deacon Blue’s career, singer/lead songwriter Ricky Ross name-dropped Van Morrison and Springsteen, but on Raintown the big influence is surely Prefab Sprout. They gave the game away a few years later, naming their collection of B-sides and outtakes Ooh Las Vegas. Nothing to do with Prefab’s ‘Hey Manhattan’, then… (To be fair, the influence may have worked the other way round too – Prefab employed Raintown producer Jon Kelly for some of From Langley Park To Memphis, and that album’s slick sheen bears an occasional resemblance to Raintown.)

Raintown is pop, not rock. The album positively sparkles. James Prime’s excellent keyboard playing is prominent (they didn’t really need a guitarist at this point) with his ‘mystery’ chord very recognisable (later also heard on ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Love And Regret’). Vocalist Lorraine McIntosh emerges as a kind of ‘bluesier’ version of Prefab’s Wendy Smith though she certainly divides opinion – she nearly ruins the title track and superb ‘Love’s Great Fears’ but is very effective when reining it in on ‘Loaded’ and ‘Dignity’.

There aren’t many more evocative ’80s album openers than the brief ‘Born In A Storm’, a gorgeous mood piece which sounds a bit like The Blue Nile if they knew a few more chords. ‘Loaded’ is a classic song ‘about some of the people we’d met in the record business’, in Ross’s words. His gritty vocals really work on this – he sounds positively distraught by the last few choruses – and the modulation at 2:48 is one of the great moments of late-’80s pop.

‘When Will You Make My Phone Ring’ is also memorable, even if Ross struggles a little with the lead vocal and the whole thing is a little similar to the soul standard ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’. The excellent ‘Chocolate Girl’ – influenced by Prefab’s ‘Cruel’ in its portrait of a modern relationship – features some gorgeous BJ Cole pedal steel and a few classic couplets including: ‘He calls her the chocolate girl/Cos he thinks she melts when he touches her’.

Finally, Raintown is a romantic album about work, home, love and nostalgia which probably gives a lot of people (including me) a warm glow when they hear it. I couldn’t get with the band’s later rockier direction but I’ll always have a soft spot for this one.

 

Siskel & Ebert: The Worst Of 1987

Given the precarious state of movie criticism (and movies?) these days, it’s a treat to check out the intelligent, measured and authoritative work of these two gentlemen.

Probably best known for their ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ schtick, I’ve recently become fairly addicted to Siskel and Ebert’s deceptively laidback presenting styles and incisive comments.

They called it exactly as they saw it, and you never feel there is any kind of corporate skullduggery going on in the background. And they certainly didn’t always agree on stuff; their exchanges could get pretty fruity.

Gene Siskel died in 1999 and Roger Ebert in 2013. They started out as rivals, writing for competing Chicago papers (the Sun Times and Tribune) in the early 1970s, but were brought together for the small screen when PBS devised a new movie review show in 1975. Its popularity quickly increased and it received national syndication in 1982.

As well as reviewing all the current releases, Siskel and Ebert also presented in-depth investigations on movie controversies of the early ’80s (video nasties and slasher movies) and weren’t afraid to get moral on our asses. But I initially zeroed in on this ‘worst of 1987′ list. Let’s go back almost 30 years to the day and check out a very tasty list of ill-conceived star vehicles (sorry about the picture quality). I want to see all of ’em. Especially the Stallone arm-wrestling flick.

 

 

David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.

Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so. Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.

Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary. But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.

Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too. ‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and – given the events in Texas this week – eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic. ‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.

‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart. Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.

Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week. He was fresh from a UK number one album Boys And Girls and had cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’. Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths. And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface. His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves. The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and rhythm guitar from David Williams. ‘New Town’ is a witty late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour. ‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire. ‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows? The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.