Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas

I'd just like to wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a peaceful and safe New Year. I'm grateful to all of you who visit and read my blog and am aware from the statistics that, as well as the UK, I get visitors from all over the world: USA, Russia, Netherlands, Germany, Iceland, Canada.... too many countries to list so wherever you are, and whatever your'e doing, thanks again and have a great Christmas.

Just a quick word on my Joe Strummer coverage: Unfortunately, I'm way behind due to a number of factors, which include pressure of work, illness (Meniere's Disease once again) and an unexpected Blu-ray that turned up for review. So, my Joe Strummer tribute will continue through January and I have two very special contributors lined up to help.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Blu-ray Review: Tenebrae

Made in 1982, Dario Argento's Tenebrae marked a triumphant return to the Giallo after the Italian director had previously shot Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) - two memorable forays into the supernatural which departed from Argento's previous fare. I've seen Tenebrae labelled on more than one occasion as Argento's last great film and while I'd certainly take issue with this assertion, there's no doubt that it represents top-drawer material.

The film is set in Rome; more specifically a Rome of the near future, as Argento makes sure he keeps well away from landmark architecture and crowded streets to unveil a city that will seem unfamiliar to all but local residents and the most committed of tourists. American writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in the eternal city to join personal assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and PR guy Bullmer (John Saxon) aiming to successfully promote his latest novel. Tenebrae (Latin for darkness/shadows) is the next in line of murder mysteries, and its storyline inspires the murder of a shoplifter and high roller played by Ania Pieroni, who is slashed with a razor while pages of Tenebrae are stuffed into her mouth.
Enter police Detective Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) and his assistant who team up with Neal in an attempt to catch the deranged killer before any more blood is spilt. When the detective confesses he never guesses the killer's identity in Neal's books, it gives some idea of the calibre of detection on offer here; a deficiency that is amplified when a rather large murder weapon - barely concealed in a tree - is missed by Altieri and his merry band.

For the benefit of potential first-time viewers, I'll refrain from delving into the various plot twists of this film, except to say their are several surprises along the way en route to justifiably famous reveal near the end which is beautifully choreographed and shot. There are several clues during Tenebrae that point to the killer's identity, but many of us missed them first time round which makes repeated viewings a must, establishing just how ingenious the screenplay really is.

The supremely stylish murder sequences were brilliantly conceived, driven by a superb score from Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli, and Franciosa's performance is a real stand-out; particularly when compared to some of the phoned-in performances from past (and future) Argento leads.

Tenebrae was originally released on Blu-ray in the UK by Arrow Video, but a sub standard master and DNR rendered their presentation to beyond disappointing. Now, a new master has emerged and the encoding process has delivered a stunning transfer. Now, skin tones are bang on, and the brightly lit interior and exterior scenes look fantastic with a fine layer of grain that remains this time round. Those who passed on the first release can now buy with confidence, and can also enjoy the supplementary material that was previously on offer and replicated here.

First off, we have a pair of audio commentary tracks: Kim Newman and Alan Jones share the first track, with Newman's vast knowledge of film nicely hooking up with Jones' wealth of industry experience which crucially includes many days of on-set exposure to Argento's films. It's a hugely enjoyable an enlightening chat, full of anecdotes and sharp observations, which leave you with a much greater appreciation of what was accomplished here.
The second track sees Thomas Rostock deliver an in-depth look at one of his favourite films, talking about the clever framing devised by Argento and ace cameraman Luciano Tovoli; discussing visual and thematic motifs, which include the 'doubling' aspect that runs through the film. An enjoyable and rewarding commentary.

Next up is an interview with Daria Nicolodi 'Screaming Queen: Daria Nicolodi Remembers Tenebrae' (16 min) in which Daria recalls she wanted Argento to start work on the final chapter of 'The Three Mothers' trilogy, and how she had her eyes on another role in Tenebrae. She also chats about the photography in Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae, and declares "Murder can be an art".

'The Unsane World Of Tenebrae: An Interview With Dario Argento' is a 15 minute interview with the great man, where he talks about the reason why he stopped doing Giallo's for a while, a most unnerving situation when he was stalked by a telephone nutter in LA and fellow director Michele Soavi is also mentioned.

'A Composition For Carnage: Claudio Simonetti On Tenebrae' (10 min) sees the ace musician and composer holding forth on Argento and recalling how they got the gig for Tenebrae.

'Goblin: Tenebrae And Phenomena Live From The Glasgow Arches' is next on the agenda, and includes 16 minutes of music from a gig on 25th February 2011. It's an absolute pleasure to see these great musicians at work with two of the standout tracks from those films.

Last up is a new interview, 'Maitland McDonagh On Tenebrae' (12 min) which was specially recorded for this release. McDonagh - author of the essential 'Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds' (a must for Argento buffs) makes some excellent points about the film and its location, ending this most special edition in style.

Tenebrae is released on 23rd December, and is Region B. A most welcome release for Argento's legion of fans, and a great place for newcomers to start.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Chaos At The Kings Hall: My First Night With The Clash

Music first got me in its clutches during my schooldays. The likes of Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, Marc Bolan and The Sweet kickstarting my musical education, and making albums and 45rpm singles a must when birthdays, Christmas or just special treats rolled around. I began to read the music press when I was 14, and became aware of the wonderful world of live music, where bands would play at concert venues up and down the country with loyal followings taking the chance to see their heroes play live. When I was 16, I started going to concerts, and some good friends lined up a series of gigs to go to at the Kings Hall in Derby. Bands came thick and fast in those days, and almost every week offered a new band to see: Man, Budgie, Curved Air, Steve Hillage, Streetwalkers, Fruupp.... they were great nights out, but deep down inside, I was bored. Like many others, I was waiting for something to happen, and didn't really know it.
Then Punk hit the headlines and the airwaves and I knew this was it. John Peel's radio show from Monday through to Friday unleashed a host of exciting new bands, and The Kings Hall - built over a swimming pool - took the baton and ran with it. In October 1977, The Boomtown Rats played there, and I enjoyed watching them as they were one of the flavours of the month at the time, even though Bob Geldof's onstage patter didn't particularly convince me and several others I talked to. At the time, I was out of work, awaiting my first job which would turn up out of the blue in December of that year,and would give me some much-needed cash to fuel my passion for music. London was calling to me, but a gig on 24th November at the Kings Hall was the only thing on my radar at the time, and would mark the first time I saw The Clash onstage.

So, I turned up at the hall early and was greeted by a long line of like-minded souls who walked down over half the length of Queen Street to join the queue. After what seemed like an age, the queue began to move forwards and before we knew it, we were inside and making a beeline for the bar to grab that first pint of the evening. I was already aware of the supporting acts and resolved to watch them both. An all-girl bands called The Lous (who were French) took the stage first, but sadly only lasted a couple of songs, thanks to some members of the partisan crowd who only wanted to see The Clash. Shower after shower of spit, beer cans and bottles, and other projectiles usually confined to Derby County's Baseball ground battles between rival fans were all aimed at the band who took flight, leaving those of us who wanted to see them utterly frustrated. Next on the bill was Richard Hell And The Voidoids; a band that had thrilled me with songs like "Blank Generation" and "Love Comes In Spurts". Unfortunately, Richard and his band suffered the same treatment as The Lous but they never took a backward step and played their set in full, earning great respect in the process.
Now the stage was set for The Clash, but the hour was getting late for Kings Hall gigs, where the headline act normally went onstage by 9.30pm. In the event, The Clash were still in their dressing room at 10.30, and with my last bus home only 15 minutes away, I had a decision to make: Should I Stay Or Should I Go? I reckon it took me all of a minute to decide I was staying to see the band. Having made that decision, the only course open to me was to sleep rough outside as none of my friends at the time were into Punk and therefore didn't attend the gigs. At 10.40pm, the lights went down, Joe Strummer and co walked on stage and went straight into "London's Burning". I knew I had made the right decision!The band and the atmosphere were simply electric, with all the songs we knew so well present and correct, and a few new ones we would grow to love. This gig marked a first for me,in that it was the first time I extricated myself from the pogoing masses down the front and went onto the balcony where I stood and watched the band and the crowd's reaction. The song I chose was "Police And Thieves". Truth was, I needed a breather, but it became something I would do at every gig I attended. In years to come, I would appreciate just how much the likes of Iggy, Pete Murphy, Lydon, Siouxsie, Ian Curtis and others commanded the stage and Joe was the same. Police And Thieves may have originally bore the name of Junior Murvin but Strummer went on to own it, and the song became of of my live faves: quite simply one of the most intense musical experiences you could imagine.

All too soon, the gig was over and I trudged out into the chilly November evening on a high, which was slightly diluted by the fact that my nice warm bed seemed a world away. After walking for what seemed like ages, I finally dossed down in a bus shelter and waited for dawn. I know at some point, I finally got to sleep. Whether I dreamed or not is beyond my memory, but if I did, I'd like to think I dreamed of Joe and the boys. When morning came, the sound of a bus honking its horn rudely awoke me, and I gathered my thoughts and realised I would return to the Kings Hall later that night. The Jam were headlining with Neon Hearts supporting, but that's another story.

Now, an illness called Meniere's Disease has largely taken control of my life, meaning attending live music is out of the question but I've had my day in the sun and been extremely fortunate to see some terrific live acts. I've seen Patti Smith at Birmingham Odeon, The Stranglers, The Jam, The Banshees on many occasions,The Lurkers play a super set at London's Marquee club as the fog rolled in on Wardour Street outside, I've seen The Who and The Rolling Stones rock the old Wembley football stadium, Iggy, Lux, The Ramones and Lydon tear up the stage at Nottingham's Rock City, the great Joy Division play twice and got off my sickbed riddled with flu to drag myself to see The Clash at Derby Assembly Rooms. Wonderful nights indeed, but I really don't think any gig has ever matched The Clash at Derby Kings Hall.
You never forget the first time.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Ballad Of Joe Strummer (part two) The Sound Of The Westway

1976, and England really was burning with boredom now. Disaffected and disfranchised youth, waiting for something, anything, to happen.Mick Jones was one of those on a short fuse, and joined a band called London SS, with a guy named Bernard Rhodes as their manager. The Punk scene spawned many legendary bands who never played a single gig, and London SS were a prime example. The name reached legendary status, but like many, imploded with just a name for a memory. Jones and Rhodes remained in contact and contacted Paul Simonon who had previously auditioned for London SS as a vocalist. before long, drummer Terry Chimes and guitarist Keith Levene were enlisted, and Strummer soon followed when Rhodes gave him the chance to form a band that would rival the Sex Pistols.

On 4th July 1976, The Clash made their live debut, supporting the Sex Pistols at The Black Swan in Sheffield. More intensive rehearsals followed, and the band gradually improved, though Levene and Chimes would soon be out of the band; the former was fired and the latter walked out.
Word of mouth soon spread about this exciting new talent, and I jumped at the chance of seeing them play live in nearby Derby on a dream of a bill. Together with The Clash, were the Sex Pistols headlining and The Damned and Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers to make for an exciting quartet of acts. Unfortunately, Derby City Council met on 4th December - the day of the gig - insisted on vetting the Pistols' show. Rotten and co simply didn't turn up, leaving the council to stew for over 2 hours. In the end, the council refused permission for the show to go ahead, so hundreds of us had a disappointing trip back home, denied the chance to see 4 terrific bands perform.

So, 1976 fucked off, and in came '77 and one hell of a year was in store. At the arse-end of January, The Clash signed to CBS Records for 100 grand, releasing their first single "White Riot" in March. This white hot slice of vinyl was a stunning declaration of intent and I knew at once that all the hype was justified. Bring on the album!
Punk spawned many great albums and singles, and a whole cartload of stunning debut LP's. "The Scream", "Crossing The Red Sea", "Another Music In A Different Kitchen", "Never Mind The Bollocks", "Cut", "Real Life".... the list goes on, but "The Clash" really was something and still is. The kind of album you play loud with the bedroom window wide open, so the music goes out into the streets where it belongs. This is still a record that stands up, even more so when you consider the mediocrity of today's music scene and the utter shit perpetrated by our current government and those who have gone before.

8th April 1977 was a red letter day when the album hit the racks of my local record store, and I could not wait to get the album back home and slam it on the turntable. Right from the opening track about brothel keeper "Janie Jones", the album simply never lets up, with furious guitar, some juggernaut drumming and venomous lyrics spat out with the contempt we all felt for the wankers who sought to control our lives. Economics, class, rubber johnnies ("Protex Blue"), race, the hopelessness of unemployment and an inspired reaction to a critic who had labelled The Clash a 'garage band'... great lyrics that were soon memorised for the gigs that were to come when we were all singalongaclash down at the front. For me, one of the finest songs in this stunning album is Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves", recorded to boost the running time of the album, and destined to be a live standard which introduced many of us to Reggae.

"The Clash" reached number 12 in the album charts, and should have made number one, but it served its purpose giving us music for the ages and whetting our appetites for seeing the band live. Happily, the wait for me was almost over.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Blu-ray Review: The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman's take on Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel takes private investigator Philip Marlowe and moves him from 1949 to 1970s Hollywood. Health concious California is the setting for Rip Van Marlowe (Elliott Gould) whose character appears to have woken from a 20 year slumber to emerge as a chain-smoking stranger in a strange land. Marlowe's best friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) has gone missing and the cops haul Marlowe in for questioning, telling him that Lennox's wife has been beaten to death. Enentually, Marlowe is released with the police now declaring Terry is dead, and the case is closed. Of course, Marlowe isn't put off that easily, and an encounter with local hood Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) hardens his resolve to discover the truth; particularly as Marty reveals Lennox stole $355,000 from him and accusing Marlowe of knowing where the money is stashed. Add to this a juicy sidebar involving the elegant Eileen Wade (Nina Von Pallandt) and her hard-drinking husband Roger (Sterling Hayden) and you have an industrious plot containing some major diferences to Chandler's book.
Inevitably, many Chandler devotees did not take kindly to Leigh Brackett's screenplay, feeling too many liberties were taken, and certainly the ending is a major revision from its source, together with Roger Wade's demise, yet both scenes work beautifully, in my opinion.

Happily, time has been kind to Altman's film, now banishing the original negativity to emerge blinking in the bright sunlight of critical acclaim. Elliott Gould really does excel in the role he was born to play, and there's a fine supporting cast at work with the shocks and surprises that keep you glued to the screen: check out Mark Rydell as the truly nasty Augustine who figures in a shocking act of violence designed to show Marlowe that he#s not fooling around like some lightweight crook.
It's well past time that The Long Goodbye was treated to a feature-packed high definition outing and the Arrow Academy Blu-ray does the job beautifully. Image quality maintains the high standard output adopted by Arrow, and DOP Vilmos Szigmond provided detailed colour notes so the master could better match the original look intended from 1973. The result is a transfer with muted, desaturated colours and plenty of detail that will surely satisfy fans of this film.

On the extras front, the Channel Four documentary Robert Altman: Giggle And Give In is a 56 minute look at Altman and his work, which was screened on 17th July 1996 by Channel Four. Here, Alan Rudolph, Elliott Gould and Shelley Duvall hold forth, with the latter declaring Altman to be "the best at depicting Americana". 'Giggle' was shot around the time of the 'Kansas City' release, so there's a slice of proceedings given to this film, and also clips from other key works such as 'Three Women' and 'Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean': how I would love to see this long-neglected classic hit Blu-ray in 2014!

Next up is the 53 minute Elliott Gould Discusses The Long Goodbye. This really is an absolute joy, as Gould reveals this to be his favourite role, and throws in many anecdotes (including a wonderful harmonica story) and recalls Altman's generosity - particularly with regard to actor's improvisation - recalling the Al Jolsen scene and that immortal line "I've seen all your movies". One feels a genuine sense of regret when this absorbing Q&A ends, and a word of thanks to Michael Connelly who is an excellent host, and who declares he watches The Long Goodbye once a year, acknowledging that it changed his life.
Vilmos Szigmond Flashes The Long Goodbye is next on the agenda, being a 14 minute interview with this great cinematographer. Szigmond has been in much demand recently with Blu-ray documentaries, and his talents add so much to Altman's film. Szigmond chats about Altman's value as a great director, about his use of the zoom lens, and shares memories of this film and of the great McCabe And Mrs Miller.

David Thompson On Robert Altman is a 21 minute interview with the writer and filmmaker which centres on Altman's work, describing the remarkable 'Images' as his European art movie; discusses how he mixes actors with real people playing themselves and how Altman felt liberated by his break from television to the big screen.

Raymond Chandler enters the spotlight next, as Tony Williamson (author of a book on Chandler) gives a 14 minute interview, explaining how Chandler discovered Pulp and his relationship with Billy Wilder, writing the screenplay for 'Double Indemnity'.

Finally, we have crime writer Max Jakubowski on Hard Boiled Fiction (14 min) where the names of Cornell Woolrich, Ed McBain and Jim Thompson crop up along the way. Devotees of The Long Goodbye will also be pleased by the inclusion of a trailer and a booklet containing new writing on the film, including a piece fro Brad Stevens (which I didn't receive a copy of).
Oh, and do check out a remarkable theory amongst these extras. it centres on the scene where Marlowe is knocked down chasing a car driven by Eileen Wade, possibly getting killed in the process. This puts a whole new spin on the ending, and is well worthy of your consideration.

The Lon g Goodbye is a Region B release, and comes out in the UK on 16th December. It's a tremendously satisfying package, and a worthy contender when the Best Blu's Of The Year lists are rolled out.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Ballad Of Joe Strummer (Part One). The 101'ers

Originally named John Graham Mellor and born in Ankara, Turkey on 21st Sugust 1952, Joe Strummer was the son of a British diplomat and spent his formative years travelling because of his father's job. Bonn, Cairo and Mexico City all made for temporary homes, before Joe settled in London in 1959.
During his schooldays in the UK, Joe quickly grew to love music, with the likes of Captain Beefheart and Chuck Berry amongst his early favourites, but it was a stint at the London School Of Art that really cemented his interest in music and also cinema.Joe had already changed his name once (from John to Woody), but another name change was on the horizon. In 1974, Joe's burgeoning passion for music saw him form the legendary band 'The 101'ers',and Joe Strummer was born.
The band made their live debut on 7th September at The Telegraph pub in Brixton as 'El Huaso And The 101 All Stars', with the name subsequently shortened to 'The 101'ers' after the number of the Maida Vale squat they lived at. The band played at various festivals and slowly began to make a name for themselves on the London Pub Rock circuit. Although relatively short-lived, Pub Rock was responsible for bringing live music back to smaller clubs, and the movement was graced by some wonderful bands such as Dr Feelgood, Kilburn And The High Roads, Roogalator and Ducks Deluxe.
The history of The 101'ers may have been short, but it got Joe up onstage and spawned some great vinyl, which included the excellent 'Keys To Your Heart' single. This was the first song Joe wrote and was about his girlfriend at the time, Palmolive.

The 101'ers were supported by an exciting new band called the Sex Pistols on 3rd April 1976, and this inspired Joe to get togther with younger, more yobbish musicians, feeling his his fellow band members were simply too old. So, The Clash were born, but this new venture did not mark the final chapter in The 101'ers as far as vinyl output was concerned. By 1981, The Clash were a vitally important band and interest grew in Joe's first group, leading to the release of a second single - 'Sweet Revenge' - which, like 'Keys' was released on the mighty Chiswick label. An album followed, titled 'Elgin Avenue Breakdown', which contained several live recordings. Right from the word go with 'Letsagetabitarockin' kicking things off, this album is a glorious slice of rabble-rousing rock with 12 tracks of high octane (sometimes subtle low-key) music and a wonderful 8 minute version of 'Gloria' ending the album in style. The album was re-released in May 2005, with the help of Joe's widow Lucinda, containing an additional eight tracks and was titled 'Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited'. Joe had always intended to give this album a very special re-release, but sadly passed away before he could do so. Looking back, The 101'ers were a very special, blink of the eye band, and I envy anyone who got to see them play live in some London pub where the fires of Pub Rock burned brightly.
Now the scene was set for The Clash to enter the fray, with a truly blistering debut album and a growing reputation as one of our very finest live bands.