Halloween Special: 11 Memorable VHS Covers

Back in those early days of VHS fever at the beginning of the ’80s, my parents would occasionally invite friends round to watch a scary movie. I remember tip-toeing out of my bedroom very late at night, creeping along the corridor and trying to snatch a peek at ‘Halloween II’ or ‘Straw Dogs’.

No, I wasn’t allowed to watch those kind of movies, though later was granted a bit of license with regards to ‘The Fog’, ‘Creepshow’, ‘The Island’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’ (for some reason).

But I could dream. The Video Masheen shop on Sheen Lane was a treasure trove of interesting VHS covers, a weird showroom advertising movies I’d never get to see. What kind of deranged mind could conceive of these images? The mind boggled. Some surely qualify as genuinely surreal pieces of art, though the #MeToo movement would probably put pay to a few more these days.

Of course I’ve seen many of these films now, though a few I still haven’t. And don’t really want to. But here are some VHS covers of the era that stuck in the mind. Straight from the shelf of Video Masheen. Happy Halloween…

11. ‘An American Werewolf In London’ (1981)

10. ‘Halloween II’ (1981)

9. ‘Creepshow’ (1982)

8. ‘The Island’ (1980)

7. ‘The Howling’ (1980)

6. ‘The Fog’ (1980)

5. ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981)

4. ‘The Exterminator’ (1980)

3. ‘Scanners’ (1980)

2. ‘Christine’ (1983)

1. ‘The Thing’ (1982)

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Superhero Unmasked? Stanley Clarke’s The Message

Stanley’s music first grabbed me sometime in the mid-’80s. It was the bassist/composer’s 1974 self-titled album featuring Tony Williams on drums, Jan Hammer on keyboards and Bill Connors on guitar. It fair blew me away; with hindsight, it was a near-perfect combo of Coltrane, Hendrix and Bootsy.

Clarke remains a hero – I still greet his new albums with some enthusiasm and his career seems to have enjoyed a new lease of life over the last 10 years or so. 2006’s Toys Of Men was a huge return to form, and releases since then have been prolific if less impressive.

Which brings us to Stanley’s new album, The Message. It continues his tried-and-tested formula: some sh*t-kickin’, symphonic jazz/rock, vocal-based R’n’B, acoustic interludes with a classical bent and brief novelty curios featuring some guest star or other (this time Doug E Fresh on rapping and human beatbox). On previous classics like School Days and If This Bass Could Only Talk, the formula worked a treat. But this time, besides the typically great playing, there are a few issues – with Stanley’s production, compositions and ‘message’.

The opener ‘And Ya Know We’re Missing You’ is a tribute to all of the following: Al Jarreau, Ndugu Chancler, Tom Petty, Chuck Berry and Larry Coryell. It sounds suspiciously like a demo, complete with distortion and rudimentary ‘slap in E’ groove. In other words, it’s the kind of thing Stanley can do in his sleep. Sure, he can pay tribute to whoever he likes in whichever way he deems suitable, but this seems a really uncommitted two minutes of music.

A re-tread of the Return To Forever classic ‘After The Cosmic Rain’ also emphasises the problem with contemporary production – compare it to Stanley’s 1999 version with his Vertu supergroup. That version had balls, low-end, dynamics, space. The new one sounds hemmed in, dried out, panicky. Drummer Mike Mitchell must take some of the blame too – he has perfected the lightning-fast single-stroke rolls but they get boring very quickly. It doesn’t help that he tunes his drums to choking point.

There are substantial pieces of music here: the title track, ‘The Rugged Truth’ and ‘The Legend Of The Abbas And The Sacred Talisman’ are great compositions which bear comparison with Stanley classics like ‘Light As A Feather’, ‘Life Is Just A Game’ and ‘Song To John’.

The acoustic-bass take on Bach’s Cello Suite is gorgeous too, but a few other tracks are beyond help – the treacly ‘Lost In A World’ and ‘To Be Alive’ irritate, while only Stanley knows what’s behind ‘Combat Continuum’, a nutty futuristic spoken-word/fusion piece about impending war. I preferred his preposterous, sci-fi-influenced outbursts on 1978’s Modern Man.

What a shame. It could have been a classic, but The Message has 5/10 written all over it. It’s definitely one for filleting on streaming services though, and I’m sure the music will come alive in concert.

The Message is out now on Mack Avenue.

28 Great Cover Versions Of The 1980s

We’ve briefly looked at crap cover versions before (though doubtless there’ll be more to come), but how about good ones from the 1980s?

It was quite easy coming up with a fairly long list. I guess the ultimate test is that at the time most people (including me) didn’t know – or didn’t care – that they were cover versions.

But it did seem as if a lot of ’80s acts had the magic touch, or at least a total lack of fear, making almost everything sound like their own. Punk probably had quite a lot to do with that.

Some of the following choices get in for sheer weirdness but most are genuine artistic achievements. Recurring themes? The Beatles, Motown, Otis Redding. Probably not too much of a surprise there. And 1981 seems a particularly good year for covers.

Anyway, enough of my yakkin’. Let the countdown commence…

28. Living Colour: ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ (1988)

27. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (1987)

26. Randy Crawford/Yellowjackets: ‘Imagine’ (1981)

Who knew this would work? Sensitive and imaginative reading of the Lennon classic, with a classic Robben Ford guitar solo.

25. Lee Ritenour: ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin” (1981)

Gorgeous West-Coast version of Sly Stone’s pop/funk opus. Surely one of the most unlikely covers of the decade, but it works a treat.

24. Luther Vandross: ‘A House Is Not A Home’ (1982)

23. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’ (1980)

Originally a reggae track by The Slickers and first released on ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack in 1972, Martyn and drummer Phil Collins rearranged it and added some lyrics. It featured on John’s fantastic Grace And Danger album.

22. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)

Cracking version of Gloria Jones’ ’60s Northern Soul classic (written by Ed Cobb). A hit all over the world, with pleasingly remedial synth arrangement, instantly recognisable soundworld and classic intro.

21. Grace Jones: ‘Use Me’ (1981)

The Nightclubbing album featured a veritable smorgasbord of good cover versions, but this take on Bill Withers scores particularly highly for originality.

20. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1981)

19. The Replacements: ‘Cruela De Vil’ (1988)

From the brilliant Hal Willner-helmed Disney tribute album Stay Awake, you’d have been a brave punter to bet a dime on this one working, but work it does.

18. Quincy Jones: ‘Ai No Corrida’ (1981)

17. Donald Fagen: ‘Ruby Baby’ (1982)

16. Stanley Clarke: ‘Born In The USA’ (1985)

Who knows, maybe this could have provided Stanley with a novelty hit if CBS had been quicker off the mark. He references John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in the intro while Rayford Griffin lays down seismic grooves and a funny old-school rap.

15. The Power Station: ‘Get It On’ (1985)

‘If cocaine was a sound…’, as a YouTube wag described it. This near-hysterical rave-up is mainly the sound of a fun late-night jam (Tony Thompson’s drumming being particularly notable). Also check out guitarist Andy Taylor’s little ode to Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House’ throughout.

14. Deborah And The Puerto Ricans: ‘Respect’ (1981)

A one-off solo single from The Flying Lizards’ singer, this Dennis Bovell-produced curio missed the charts but remains a fascinating post-punk artefact.

13. Roxy Music: ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (1980)

Roxy’s first cover version presumably raised some eyebrows but the lads pull it off with some aplomb, aided by Allan Schwartzberg’s tough NYC drum groove – and the fact that Bryan Ferry can’t resist adding some typical weirdness in the first 20 seconds.

12. Ringo Starr & Herb Alpert: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (1988)

Another once-heard-never-forgotten cracker from the aforementioned Stay Awake collection, the album version is preceded by a very menacing Ken Nordine spoken-word intro.

11. Japan: ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ (1980)

David Sylvian probably hates this but no matter. It’s hard to think of another band pulling it off. Ominous synthscapes from Richard Barbieri, a nice recorder solo by Mick Karn and brilliant ‘where’s-one?’ beat from Steve Jansen.

10. Everything But The Girl: ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (1988)

It definitely divides opinion, but certainly fits the ‘sounds like they wrote it’ criterion.

9. Bananarama & Fun Boy Three: ‘Really Saying Something’ (1982)

Penned by Motown songsmiths Norman Whitfield, Micky Stevenson and Edward Holland Jr and first performed by The Velvelettes in 1964, it’s hard not to smile when this comes on the radio. I love the way the ladies pronounce ‘strutting’.

8. David Bowie: ‘Kingdom Come’ (1980)

The Dame’s magnificent take on a little-known track from Tom Verlaine’s 1978 debut album.

7. UB40: ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983)

No apologies for including this Neil Diamond-penned perennial. Great bassline, nice groove, lovely Ali Campbell vocal performance.

6. Phil Collins: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1981)

Phil closed his Face Value album with this oft-forgotten corker, featuring a classic John Giblin bassline (later cribbed by Pearl Jam for the opening of their ‘Once’) and cool Shankar violin.

5. Robert Palmer: ‘Not A Second Time’ (1980)

Robert adds some New Wave grit to this Lennon-penned rocker, and his singing has rarely been better.

4. Siouxsie And The Banshees: ‘Dear Prudence’ (1983)

3. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (1982)

First recorded by The Arrows in 1975, this is simply one of the great singles of the 1980s and a huge hit to boot.

2. Hue & Cry: ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ (1988)

It shouldn’t work but it does, courtesy of singer Pat Kane’s excellent tone and phrasing. His trademark ‘na-na-na-na’s help too. I wonder what Kate thought of it.

1. Blondie: ‘The Tide Is High’ (1980)

Written by reggae legend John Holt and first performed by The Paragons in 1966, this was an inspired – if somewhat cheesy – choice for the band. It’s mainly included here for Debbie Harry’s delightfully off-the-cuff vocal, sounding like her first crack at the song.

Any great tracks missing? Feel free to chime in below.

Book Review: The Big Note (A Guide To The Recordings Of Frank Zappa) by Charles Ulrich

It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way. After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.

Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.

Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.

Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide (Ulrich rightly eschews the chronological approach, reasoning that nothing in FZ’s life or music was ever chronological) featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.

The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs. The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.

Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.

I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).

There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. This is the book his music deserves.

‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.

 

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.

September Songs: David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees

September’s here again. The leaves brown, the nights draw in; thoughts and ears turn towards Sylvian’s music.

The exquisite Brilliant Trees, released in July 1984is one of those collections that I must have owned on almost every format over the years, and probably bought a few times on each.

A period of extreme introspection and even depression descended upon Sylvian following the split of Japan in late 1982. Although his relationship with Mick Karn’s ex Yuka Fujii (who took the photos in the stylish Brilliant Trees album package) was largely thought to be the main catalyst, it still represented for Sylvian a distressing rupture of childhood friendships. He later claimed that he could barely stay awake during this period, so degraded were his immune system and emotional reserves.

Sylvian gathered co-producer Steve Nye and some of his favourite musicians at Berlin’s Hansa Studios and RAK in London. Influences came from ambient music, NYC avant-funk, John Martyn, Nick Drake and ECM jazz. His friend/ frequent collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto and brother Steve Jansen were the main musical cohorts, though ex-Japan keyboard texturalist Richard Barbieri also appeared to great effect.

Brilliant Trees is very much an album of two sides. The opener ‘Pulling Punches’ is a sweetener, an effective but unrepresentative slice of white funk featuring NYC sessioneers Wayne Braithwaite and Ronnie Drayton on bass and guitar. The nearest thing to the Tin Drum sound, there’s nothing remotely like it on the rest of the album.

What a treat to hear Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham’s flugelhorn/trumpet breaks on the classic singles ‘Ink In The Well’ (UK #36) and ‘Red Guitar’ (UK #17). Side two is a different matter altogether – it’s dark, foreboding, autumnal. Sylvian and Nye mostly eschew ‘conventional’ solos in favour of ‘found’ sounds courtesy of Holger Czukay’s Dictaphone (see below) or Jon Hassell’s extraordinary conch-like trumpet, both used to especially brilliant effect on ‘Wailing Wall’.

‘Backwater’ begins with a powerful build up of (sampled?) strings (and check out Jansen’s inspired groove on this, a queasy 6/4 over a very strange programmed shaker pattern), while the almost hymnal title track is beautifully performed by Sylvian and adorned with a gorgeous ethno-jam outro.

Listening 30 years on, what strikes one is the minimalist nature of the whole album. It has dated remarkably well. Many tracks are built around a cyclical Jansen groove, sparse bass, strong Sylvian melody and then tasteful, painterly touches from clean guitar, piano, Dictaphone or synth.

This stunning collection set in motion a superb four-album run of form for Sylvian. Brilliant Trees is an almost-perfect blend of songcraft and the avant-garde at a time when pop was drawing on jazz, ambient and world music to occasionally spectacular – and commercial – effect (the album reached #4 in the UK charts and sold over 100,000 copies). You might say that things were never quite the same again.