Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

Reading obituaries of director Jonathan Demme, who has died from cancer aged 73, it struck me how many memorable scenes his films spawned.

Born in Baldwin, Long Island, his early career was mentored by B-movie pioneer Roger Corman. When Demme broke into Hollywood he never lost sight of his early exploitation influences and zany sense of humour; even ‘serious’ fare like ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘Philadelphia’ was hijacked by sundry in-jokes and bizarro guest stars including Corman, Chris Isaak and George A Romero.

Demme’s sets were famous for being fun places to work, and that’s borne out by the bonhomie and improvisatory vibe present in many of his films. He was clearly a friend of musicians, frequently using music in his movies as symbol of collaboration or even spiritual release (writer David Bowman memorably described ‘Stop Making Sense’ as ‘a three-act play documenting the spiritual journey of a hapless white guy trying to “get down”’!).

Apparently Demme sat down with each original member of Talking Heads before filming ‘Stop Making Sense’ and asked them, ‘How do you see me doing this?’ It’s hard to imagine Brian De Palma doing that. As a live-music documentarian, Demme let the viewer get to know each performer as if they were a character in a movie with the use of long, lingering shots, a world away from the clichéd, fast-cutting MTV style.

So, in tribute to a modern master, here are a few memorable moments from Demme films, in chronological order:

‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

‘Something Wild’ (1986)

‘Swimming To Cambodia’ (1987) (swearing alert)

‘Married To The Mob’ (1988)

‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

‘Heart Of Gold’ (2006)

‘Rachel Getting Married’ (2008)

Laurie Anderson: Big Science 35 Years On

Warner Bros. Records, released April 1982

8/10

The 1980s were littered with ‘novelty’ hits but perhaps none was more unexpected – or more powerful – than Laurie Anderson’s John Peel-endorsed, eight-minute UK number 2 ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’. Massenet was a French composer, whose aria ‘Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père’ (‘O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father’) appeared in the 1885 opera ‘Le Cid’.

‘O Superman’ was totally hip at the time, appearing in the slipstream of Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’, and also featuring a video which looked like avant-garde art. David Bowie was a big fan, covering the song during his 1997 Earthling tour. It still sounds unique and pretty hip today, even managing to throw in a little ode to Philip Glass with its brief, circular melodic motif that appears a few times.

A live performance of ‘O Superman’ was recorded in New York City in the week following the 9/11 attacks, and later appeared on the album Live In New York. In this context, certain lyrics seem to take on greater significance: ‘Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Smoking or non-smoking?’ Anderson has intimated that the song was inspired by watching television news reports of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/80.

‘O Superman’ came from Anderson’s performance art/music piece ‘United States I-IV’, and was initially released as a single on the indie One Ten label. When it quickly sold out of its initial run of 1,000 copies, Warners picked it up and also asked for a whole album of music from the show.

What about the rest of Big Science? Not having heard it for a few years, I approached the album with trepidation. But there was no need – ‘From The Air’ and ‘Sweaters’ (‘I no longer love the way you hold your pens and pen…cils’) are still very funny, but also oddly disquieting. There’s just something so fresh about Anderson’s persona. The album cover says it all (I was remiss to leave it out of my top covers of the 1980s lists) – she is the epitome of NYC post-punk cool minimalism.

Lyrically, Big Science – like the performance piece it comes from – seems to be satirising the rebirth of American ‘heroism’ and industrial might of the Reagan era. Anderson often speaks with (and mocks) the ‘voice of authority’, someone who, as she later said in an interview, is ‘either a shoe salesman or someone who wants to sell you an insurance policy you don’t want or need’ (now who does that remind me of?).

But there’s always a clash between this technological brave new world and the spiritual binds that hold us together – family (‘O Mom and Dad…’), folklore and tradition. The title track rams home the point with its ‘primitive’ percussion and vocals that sound vaguely like Native American chanting. ‘O Superman’ also does it with its initial focus on a piece of new technology – an answering machine – and then more metaphysical concerns (justice, God, love).

As the 1980s wore on, Anderson’s studio albums possibly suffered from being right on the ‘technological cutting edge’, but Big Science revels in simple acoustic/electric juxtapositions – some Velvet Underground drums here, an analogue synth, Vocoder or Harmonizer there, plus sax, percussion and treated violin. Occasionally it would be nice to hear an instrumental solo, maybe someone of the NYC-art-rock-approved school such as Shankar or Jon Hassell, but generally Anderson keeps it simple and maintains a very assured minimalist musical style throughout.

Big Science slightly outstays its welcome, its last two tracks quite a stretch, but overall still sounds like a vital piece of work from a major, treasured artist.

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 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.