Book Review: High Concept (Don Simpson And The Hollywood Culture Of Excess) by Charles Fleming

Director Robert Altman once said of his classic 1992 satire ‘The Player’: ‘What we show is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood’.

Revisiting Charles Fleming’s excellent, coruscating ‘High Concept’, one can easily believe it. It is to the ’80s and ’90s movie scene what Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ was to the ’60s and ’70s.

The main focus of the book is Don Simpson, producer of ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’, ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Days Of Thunder’. He died in 1996 at the age of just 52.

‘High Concept’ explores this fascinating, contradictory character; an egotistical monster who was also inordinately generous to friends and relatives; a rampant egomaniac and alleged sex pest who was nonetheless haunted by his God-fearing Alaskan upbringing; a producer best known for lowest-common-denominator fodder but described by various people as a creative genius whose 30-page memos to screenwriters became legendary. Many also heralded his uncanny ability to find a screenplay’s crucial flaw.

Both the Simpson character and this book feel incredibly prescient. He comes across as half Trump, half Weinstein. There are endless stories that could have sparked a #MeToo moment had Twitter been around in the late ’80s.

He flourished at a time when corporate skullduggery in the movie business was a given. You could get away with anything as long as the studio was profitable. As Fleming puts it, ‘As long as he didn’t kill anyone he was always going to be welcomed back. If he did kill someone, well, arrangements could be made’ (indeed Stephen Ammerman, a doctor, was found dead at Simpson’s pool house in 1995).

Other people very much in Simpson’s orbit included Heidi Fleiss, OJ Simpson and Kato Kaelin. He was ahead of his time but always went too far. Or, to put it in Simpson-speak, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. It’s not enough until it’s too much. Because how do you know it’s enough until it’s too much?’ Fad dieting, plastic surgery, Scientology, junk food, kinky sex, prescription drugs, cocaine – they were all meat and drink to him.

Simpson was also always super-competitive, in the classic ‘Wall Street’ style, from day one. Late in his career, he said: ‘Anytime I see someone come into the business who is smart and talented…and likes to go to lunch and dinner…I know he was failed already. He hasn’t got a prayer. Because someone like me is going to run all over him…’

But ‘High Concept’ opens out intriguingly to look beyond Simpson and explore the rampant egos of the entire Planet Hollywood generation, outlining staggering tales of excess involving Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Downey Jr., Julia Roberts and Charlie Sheen. Only Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise emerge with anything approaching dignity.

Fleming – an experienced, respected movie writer who has contributed to Vanity Fair, LA Times, Variety and Newsweek – writes superbly, with natural elan and a swinging turn of phrase. Along with ‘Indecent Exposure’ and ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, ‘High Concept’ is the best book I’ve read about the darker side of modern Hollywood.

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Book Review: Ashes To Ashes (The Songs Of David Bowie 1976-2016) by Chris O’Leary

Another song-by-song study of Bowie’s output is certainly an ambitious undertaking; we already have Nicholas Pegg’s excellent ‘The Complete David Bowie’ and David Buckley’s brief but arresting ‘The Complete Guide To The Songs Of David Bowie’.

But O’Leary is more qualified than most, having run the popular Pushing Ahead Of The Dame website for over 10 years now. And, by and large, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ pulls it off, offering a far more personal, florid take on Bowie’s songs than the aformentioned books.

He makes the decision to discuss the songs not in alphabetical order but, roughly, in the order in which they were ‘conceived’ and/or recorded. While this doesn’t allow for easy reference, an alphabetical title index is included at the back of the book.

The section on Low/”Heroes”/Lodger is excellent, with up-to-date interview material from Tony Visconti and Adrian Belew, and a focus on the city’s geography/history mostly missing from previous Bowie books. And it’s great to see the ‘Baal’ sessions getting the detailed analysis they deserve.

Fascinating items also emerge around Bowie’s late-’80s/early ’90s work, from Never Let Me Down through ‘Pretty Pink Rose’ to The Buddha Of Suburbia, with more detail than usual about the formation of Tin Machine. And it would be hard to find a better study of Bowie’s final two albums, even if they are this writer’s least favourite works of the era.

There are predictable put-downs of Tonight (but an excellent analysis of ‘Loving The Alien’, complete with reading list!), Black Tie White Noise and Tin Machine II (which actually would have been a late-era Bowie classic if it had jettisoned Hunt Sales’ songwriting contributions), and some sometimes weirdly-personal slights.

There are also oft-repeated errors about the Let’s Dance era, like the listing of Tony Thompson’s drum appearances (he didn’t play on ‘Ricochet’ or ‘Shake It’), but O’Leary makes up for it with a fascinating section on the fact that Bowie was actually more of an actor than a singer when he made that album.

Musical appreciation doesn’t seem the author’s strong point – for example, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ is described as ‘being ‘mostly in E minor, the harmonic murkiness finally resolved with a closing Em chord’. This ignores the fact that the verse’s home key is clearly G major. And he denegrates Hakim’s ‘gated tom fills’ in ‘I Keep Forgettin’,  but they’re actually the dreaded Simmons electric drums. But elsewhere there are interesting, original observations, like the comparisons between ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Lust For Life’.

One thing’s for sure – ‘Ashes To Ashes’ takes one back to the music. Revisiting Scary Monsters in particular was very illuminating in light of the book. So even if one can’t avoid O’Leary’s natural aversion to much of this material, it’s a valuable addition to the Bowie bibliography.

The question is, will one reach for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for quick reference ahead of the Pegg and Buckley works? Only time will tell (or crawl).

‘Ashes To Ashes’ is published by Repeater Books.

Book Review: Small Victories (The True Story Of Faith No More) by Adrian Harte

It’s sometimes forgotten the influence Faith No More had as an alternative rock band. Long before Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ breakthrough, they were really the first viable, commercial alternative to the hair metal and retro bands of the mid-’80s.

Adrian Harte’s new biography of the band is a fascinating document of a very strange career. They are certainly not your normal rock outfit; that’s made pretty clear when Harte – a trusted friend of the band and founder of newfaithnomore.com – picks up the story of Faith No More’s two co-founders, keyboard player Roddy Bottum and bassist Billy Gould, a couple of music-mad rich kids ‘enjoying’ a Catholic education at a Jesuit grammar school in Los Angeles.

Inspired by the West Coast and London post-punk scenes (I’m pleased to say that one of their formative gig experiences was seeing a double-header of 23 Skidoo and This Heat at the Battersea Arts Centre, of all places…), they quickly pick up a large local following and garner interest from various labels including Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound.

Adding drummer Mike Bordin is a huge catalyst, and he rivals Rush’s Neil Peart as one of the more intelligent skin-bashers in modern rock – he studied English literature at UC Berkeley, reporting: ‘My specialities were Middle English like Chaucer and Edmund Spenser, and I even liked Shakespeare a lot. To graduate, I did a thesis on Richard Wright, the African-American novelist.’ Mick Shrimpton he ain’t.

Vocalist/frontman Chuck Mosley is the next key addition, and he emerges as the great pioneer of the scene. Harte doesn’t shy away from the political/racial issues ignited by recruiting a mixed-race frontman, but happily is more interested in what Mosley brings to the table both musically and lyrically – he reports that the band’s ‘meta’ ideas (encapsulated by the tracks ‘We Care A Lot’ and ‘Introduce Yourself’) are mainly Mosley’s contributions. We also learn about the roots of rap/rock, Mosley saying that he was ‘trying to imitate David Bowie, but also there was other stuff I didn’t understand, so I would rant and rap over it. I was black and white, so it was my two worlds together.’

The UK was Faith No More’s first major market, but we learn that their Dingwalls debut in early 1988 was almost terminally scuppered when the keyboard roadie locked Bottum’s synth in its case and left the key back at the hotel across town – Roddy had to get the tube to retrieve it, drawing stares with his newly-shaved head and white paper jumpsuit.

After various incidents and misunderstandings, Mosley was sacked from Faith No More after a 24th May 1988 gig at London’s Town & Country Club, and then the band remembered a young kid from Eureka, California, who had thrust his Mr Bungle demo tape into Gould’s hands the year before. But we learn that Mike Patton certainly wasn’t a shoo-in, with the management far keener than the band to recruit him. Gould says: ‘I was scared we were gonna ruin this kid’s life. He was like Justin Bieber.’ Patton was the all-American kid from who’d never been on a plane before. But after he auditioned, adding his lyrics and melodies to ‘From Out Of Nowhere’, they knew they had their man.

Harte’s analysis of Patton’s contribution to the band is excellent, with particular emphasis on his melodies and lyrics (the latter spawning the beginnings of record-company discontent, producer/Slash Records employee Matt Wallace forcing him to tone down his original words for ‘Underwater Love’). And who knew that ‘Midlife Crisis’ was a first-rate – if somewhat disturbing – song about co-dependency (‘You’re perfect/Yes it’s true/But without me you’re only you/Your menstruating heart/It ain’t bleeding enough for two‘)?

We learn all about the band’s high-profile – and sometimes hilarious – support gigs with rock behemoths Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, and there’s also a gripping account of the Berlin gig during which Patton announced the falling of the Wall. If stats are your bag, Harte provides all the impressive info about the band’s record sales and chart placings, and he also expertly accompanies us through the band’s mid-’90s burnout (even as the quality of their records seemed to be increasing), 2009 reunion tour and subsequent comeback album.

‘Small Victories’ is a real page-turner, highly recommended to long-time fans of the band but also general fans of ’80s/’90s music.

‘Small Victories’ is published now by Jawbone Press.

Book Review: Cries And Whispers 1983-1991 (Sylvian, Karn, Jansen, Barbieri) by Anthony Reynolds

Which ‘rock’ artists are the most likely to be subjects of not one but a series of biographies? The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan?

Japan are possibly unlikely recipients of such a legacy, but Anthony Reynolds’ superb new ‘Cries And Whispers’ – carrying on from where ‘A Foreign Place’ left off – holds the attention with ease.

His luxuriously-appointed new book takes an indepth look at all the protagonists’ (Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri) careers between 1983 and 1991, a mouth-watering prospect when you realise how scant the serious coverage of these groundbreaking musicians really is, Martin Power’s half-decent 1998 biography of Sylvian aside.

Here you get rigorous research, rare photos and unexpectedly candid interviews from producers, engineers, designers, record company execs, hangers-on and of course the musicians themselves. There are fascinating glimpses under the ’80s pop bonnet, with details of record company correspondence, press releases, tour itineraries/diaries and testimonies from session players.

There’s the odd unqualified muso revelation (did Mark King really get asked to play bass on ‘Pulling Punches’?!) and tasty gossip a-plenty, hardly surprising when you consider that the book covers the troubled Rain Tree Crow project.

In the main, Reynolds wisely keeps musical analysis to a minimum, letting the facts and musicians speak for themselves, and he also – admirably – is as interested in the murkier corners of Sylvian’s ’80s work (the one-off ‘Pop Song’ single, his involvement with Propaganda’s A Secret Wish album) as he is with the better-known stuff.

Indeed, all the chapters on Sylvian’s solo work are terrific, particularly the lengthy portrait of his punishing ‘In Praise Of Shamans’ 1988 world tour. The Rain Tree Crow section is also gripping. There are minor gripes here and there: some quotes from relatively peripheral figures – clearly cut and pasted from email correspondence – could do with trimming, and does anyone really want such a lengthy analysis of Dalis Car or The Dolphin Brothers? But even these longeurs have their fascinating moments.

This writer almost read ‘Cries And Whispers’ in one sitting, passing it from desk to sofa to dinner table to bath to bed, and you may well do the same. It’s another fine achievement by Reynolds and another classic music book to boot. We eagerly await the next instalment.

‘Cries And Whispers’ is published by Burning Shed.

 

Book Review: Pat Metheny (The ECM Years 1975-1984) by Mervyn Cooke

You know the guy: long, bushy hair, beatific grin, jeans, sneakers, long-sleeved T-shirt, usually rhapsodizing intensely via some kind of guitar gizmo. Despite his many stylistic detours, Pat Metheny is a brand all right, and his music inspires a devotion and attendant sales profile that has rarely – if ever – been afforded to ‘jazz’ musicians.

If you – like me – aren’t always enamoured by the bulletproof sincerity of his stage presentation (in Gary Giddins’ memorable words, he ‘intones plush melodies with excessive sobriety, as though the notes were transmitted directly from God’ – the main reason why I’ve always preferred his stuff on record rather than live…), it’s beyond doubt that Metheny is one of the great guitar soloists.

Mervyn Cooke’s superb new book ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ sheds light on the first – and, for me, best – decade of the guitarist’s recording career, when he was the famous European jazz label’s top turn. It’s an academic study, though never boring and certainly never predictable, with close attention played to Pat’s guitar styles, musical history, tunings, key collaborators (loads of new stuff about Jaco, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton and Lyle Mays here), equipment, album cover designs and inspirations.

There are fascinating details, like Metheny’s obsession with flat ride cymbals (hence his deliberate placement of drummers onstage, ride cymbals always in close proximity to his left ear) and his singular band-leading philosophies. There are solo transcriptions and quotes from archive interviews. Cooke also shrewdly compares Metheny’s studio work in this era to that of Weather Report’s, drawing parallels between both acts’ meticulous sculpting of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ musical performances and attempts to concoct ‘through-composed’ – rather than vamp-based – material.

Metheny fans will love ‘The ECM Years’, as will anyone who has even the faintest interest in guitar trends of the last 40 years. It also serves as a rich biography of ECM Records in its early years, with numerous revelations about label boss Manfred Eicher.

Reading the book sent me running back to choice cuts from Pat’s early albums that I liked during my teenage years – Bright Size Life, American Garage, 80/81, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Travels, Rejoicing, First Circle, Song X. Revisiting As Falls Wichita in particular has been somewhat of a revelation. (Prog fans: check out side one, below. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, analysed in great detail by Cooke.)

Mervyn Cooke’s ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ is published by Oxford University Press.

Book Review: Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl

There aren’t many titles in the ‘complete studio sessions’ pop library. Mark Lewisohn and others have done sterling work in this area on the Beatles, and Elvis’s career has been similarly scrutinised. But the relative lack of material begs the question – do we really want to know everything about our icons’ recording histories?

When it comes to Prince, the answer may be a resounding yes, since his mystique is so bound up with his status as a master multi-instrumentalist, famously with hundreds of unreleased songs in the studio vaults.

So such a book was probably only a matter of time, but fair play to Duane Tudahl for ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, a mainly fascinating day-to-day diary of Prince’s studio work (at LA’s Sunset Sound and various facilities and warehouses around Minneapolis) when he was recording the songs that made up Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and key side projects with Sheila E, Jill Jones, Stevie Nicks, The Time and The Family.

The first half of the book is fascinating for three reasons – it outlines the vengeful decline of one band (The Time) and the adrenalized formation of two others (The Revolution and The Family), though you have to be a major fan of the former to enjoy these sections. It also captures Prince at a crucial juncture in his career, when he was going from mid-table journeyman to title contender.

What comes across loud and clear in the second half is the relentless forward motion of Prince’s creative drive – for example, just a week before the start of his Purple Rain tour, he was completing work on both the Around The World In A Day and The Family albums! We also get a real sense of his famously-short attention span – he curtailed the Purple Rain tour at its absolute peak, bored of the material after only six months.

But the bane of the book is repetition. Too many calendar days are similar –  there’s only so much you can say about two weeks of ‘Baby I’m A Star’ overdubs. In Tudahl’s need to flesh out sometimes fairly uneventful studio days, he uses variations on very similar quotes.

But he also gets some great interview material from almost all of the major players, and there are plenty of revelations and interesting theories – he reveals that ‘When Doves Cry’ was written on Tuesday 1st March 1984, two days after Prince lost two Grammy awards to Michael Jackson. Did this double setback prompt some fairly uncharacteristic introspection, spawning his biggest hit?

Prince is also revealed as a major Springsteen fan, bringing the saxophone sound into his music mainly due to Clarence Clemons’ playing with The Boss. Then there’s his little-known charity work, including a touching photo of a gig at a Minneapolis deaf school, and we also get an insight into his fear before the first night of the Purple Rain tour.

There are also interesting comments about Prince’s business deals – Wendy Melvoin: ‘Collaboration with Prince was a reality, but it didn’t pay the bills.’ Her sister Susannah goes as far as to say that Prince would test people’s loyalty by paying terrible money. These are tantalising – if troubling – morsels, never fully explored by Tudahl.

But he gets closer than most to revealing the true Prince, warts and all. Spoiler alert: some of it isn’t pretty. ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’ is a major achievement and a real labour of love. The years of research have certainly paid off. It’s a vital buy for hardcore Prince fans, but arguably only the second best book on the Minneapolis master – just pipped at the post by Per Nilsen’s ‘Prince: The First Decade’.

‘Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions’ by Duane Tudahl is published by Rowman & Littlefield