31 Days of Horror in 2020

Ah, ‘tis the season! Yes, I’m talking October, I’m talking Halloween, and I’m talking A horror-movie-a-day. I’ve been aware that this sort of month-long marathon has been going on for years thanks to following like-minded horror fans on Twitter, but it wasn’t until this year that I felt the desire to really commit to it. One reason may be that in these pandemic times, my work pattern has altered to the level that I’m free every evening to actually watch a film when I get home. A lot of participants in the challenge have worked to a fun pattern, which assigns certain sub-genres or themes or character-type to a particular day (slashers, witches, animation, etc), but I decided to just simply go with what I fancied watching right there and then. Also, it was a great opportunity to finally sit down and watch some of the many films I own but still haven’t watched, or maybe not revisited in a long time…I logged my progress on Twitter, and it’s the screengrabs of those original tweets that I’ve collected and shared below. Enjoy!

As watched on the delightful Talking Pictures channel.
A surprisingly swift television screening for a film only made last year – this was screened on the Horror Channel. Thought I’d test myself after the more comforting animal terrors of the night before. I love cats. I’m scared of spiders.
A very welcome re-watch – hadn’t seen this one in a long time. As seen on the Eureka Blu-ray.
Watched on DVD. Heard about this one for a long time, but only just got round to watching it!
Another DVD watch, and another film I’ve been meaning to watch for the first time for a long time!
Director Michele Soavi is a Dario Argento protégé, and this is meant to be his most insane film, so I was very keen to see this. Watched on Amazon Prime.
Lost count of how many times I’ve seen this one. Never gets old. Watched on DVD.
Another first-time watch, this was seen on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray range.
First-time watch. Arrow Blu-ray.
Watched at the Rio Cinema. First cinema visit since Tenet a few months back!
First-time watch. Arrow Blu-ray.
Viewed as part of the Watch Carpenter tweet-a-long party on Twitter on the deluxe Arrow Blu-ray set.
First-time watch, recorded from the telly, a BBC2 screening.
Watched on Blu-ray from 88 Films, borrowed from a friend!
First-time watch. Constantly referenced in the excellent Filmageddon film quiz, so I thought I’d better get my act together and watch it! Arrow Blu-ray. Blimey, I do have a lot of discs from this distributor!
Hadn’t seen this in a long time. Used to be a late-night television mainstay, then it became very obscure and unavailable. Now thankfully available on BFI Blu-ray.
The biggest let-down on the month, so much that I gave away my Blu-ray copy!
101 Films Blu-ray. Borrowed from a friend, but I’ll definitely be getting my own copy!
Indicator Blu-ray, watched as part of the Watch Carpenter season.
Wonderful to revisit this, this time on 88 Films’ Blu-ray edition.
First-time watch, long overdue. DVD version.
Optimum DVD version. Delayed watching this for far too long!
Another very overdue first-time watch. DVD version.
Streamed via YouTube. The only documentary in this marathon!
Ever since I was freaked out by the above poster when I saw it on the London Underground back when I was 9 years old, I’ve been aware of this film, and I finally got to thanks to YouTube!
Watched as part of the Watch Carpenter season, streamed via YouTube.
Just read John Updike’s novel, so it was a perfect time to revisit the film. Watched it on DVD, I really need to get the Blu-ray so that the film’s spectacular look can be best appreciated.
Fire it up! Always worth a rewatch, this. Watched on DVD.
Recently restored for a Blu-ray release by Network – before that this was a tough find, having only been screened on TV twice (I think?) and with hard-to-find home video versions. The only made-for-television feature on this list.
Here’s the link to the referred review (https://fletchtalks.wordpress.com/2018/01/13/suspiria-1977/) Watched this on Synapse’s incredible Blu-ray, which is the best edition I’ve ever seen of this film. Looked incredible, sounded terrifying, felt amazing.
35th anniversary Anchor Bay Blu-ray. Probably my 20th or so viewing of this film! Still the best!

So there you have it! 31 days of horror, with some old favourites revisited, some new favourites discovered and only one real disappointment to speak of. I watch horror films all year round of course, but this was a wonderful opportunity to really get to grips with the tiniest fraction of the genre. It’s been a fantastic ride!

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 41: The Collect Call of Cathulu


BOOM! The Ghostbusters are back on absolute top form with this terrific episode, which often ranks, deservedly, very high on fans lists of best ever adventures. It’s got the lot – it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s beautifully animated – what more do you want? Okay, so maybe the final confrontation could have been a bit more intense, but whatever, this is still great.


For many young viewers, this was probably (in fact, there’s no doubt about it) their first exposure to the works of H.P Lovecraft, unless those same viewers had parents liberal enough to let them stay up and watch the likes of Stuart Gordon’s excellent Re-Animator or From Beyond, which would have been popular rentals at video stores around the same time. Lovecraft wrote a substantial run of ‘cosmic horror’ fiction that would reverberate in cult quarters immensely through the latter-half of the 20th century. His biggest contribution was definitely the whole ‘Cthulu’ myth, which began with his chilling short story The Call of Cthulu and then branched out into other Lovecraft stories which then influenced countless others, and cult fascination and adoration followed. So who is Cthulu? Or what is it? Essentially it’s an ancient god/demon who slumbers far beneath the waves, awaiting the call of its disciples to bring it back to the surface in order to rule/devastate the world once more. In the original short story, Cthulu’s temporary emergence in the modern world sends shock waves through out the dreams of many disparate people all over the world, which inspires an investigator to put all the pieces together and work out why the image of a tentacled, dragon-like, miles-tall monster keeps recurring in people’s imagination, seemingly out of nowhere. Lovecraft’s tale is scary because it’s one of those extremely-close-call narratives, where it’s mostly about what might have happened, and we the reader are witness to potential apocalypse which is averted (or at least calmed down) for a while. But for how long?


Well in the case of ‘The Collect Call of Cathulu’ (a meaningless, but funny spin on the original title), not that long, for here we have a cult of worshippers who wish bring their god back – if only they’d chose somewhere, anywhere else aside from New York City. The episode is not a retelling of Lovecraft’s story, but is obviously indebted immensely to his universe, including having some of its one-off characters named after figures in the Lovecraft literary circle. Now you may notice that the show has changed the spelling of ‘Cthulu’ in the title to add a helpful extra vowel, probably to spare the children all the confusion of wondering what that jumble of letters all means, although they could have spared a moment to have Egon explain the spelling/pronunciation. Or maybe they couldn’t have. Seriously, this is one super-packed episode with no time to stand still and that, in the best way possible, always feels a lot longer than it actually is. It’s like a mini-movie. The plot ricochets characters across the country and back in a matter of hours, and so much incident takes place that it makes the majority of episodes feel pretty sedate and leisurely.


So, let’s start at the start, where the New York Public Library (nice nod to the film – we even begin with the a shot of the same lion statue) has, rather foolishly, acquired the spell book to end all spell books: the Necronomicon (THE BOOK OF THE DEAD!) and wants to put it out on public display! This opening is brilliantly ominous, with the library nearly entirely empty at night – spooky, moonlit corridors and so on, with great eerie music. The sleazy Clark Ashton is the totally suspicious acquirer of the book and curator of the exhibit (I don’t trust him for a second), but his co-worker Professor Klein thinks it’s a bad idea to put this thing out for the public to see.  There’s a great shot where we see the book in its display cabinet, the reflection of Ashton and Klein in the same shot. There are a lot of great shots in this episode.


Outside, something is lurking. In a neat series of jump-cuts, we crash into the display cabinet, shattering the glass and alerting the doomed security guard who sees that the book’s been taken, but as soon as he tries to turn on the light, a slippery tentacle grips his arm! Flashing the light in its direction, the security is horrified to see THIS!


Resembling Cthulu (but a smaller, 12-foot version), this thing scares the security guard so much he faints. Or dies of fright. Either way, we never see him again. The next day, the guys are summoned to the library to get the facts, and Peter’s date with ‘Candy’, who we never see again, is unfortunately curtailed. As Janine puts it, don’t fall for Ghostbusters, they’ll only break your heart. Remember, Janine still loves Egon, so she knows all too well about this whole king thing. Plus, unrequited love is not the only dissatisfaction in her life: the book she’s reading this scene is Changing Your Job.


Anyway, their latest case doesn’t quite derail the guys’ plan for the day, as Ray was already very keen to go to the exhibit anyway, and for those of us not in the know, he gives us a quick rundown of the mysterious allure of the book, namechecking Lovecraft in the process. There’s a funny bit when he reckons the book’s copyright page scores a 9.9 on the PKE meter! Winston, quite amusingly, assumed the ‘Necronomicon’ was a rock concert. When they arrive, Peter shrugs off the importance of the Necronomicon with ‘it’s just a book’. Ray’s comeback? ‘And an atomic bomb is just two rocks slammed together’. Klein is terrified that the world is in grave, grave danger. After all, the Necronomicon has the power to open portals between worlds, and to awaken the all-powerful ‘The Old Ones’, such as Cthulu (bless you), a figure so immense and powerful ‘he makes Gozer look like Little Mary Sunshine’ – nice, another nod to the film!


Using the PKE meter, Egon leads the guys down into the sewer, where, after a nice shot of a rat observing them, are ambushed by a half-dozen or so of the ghastly octopus-creatures, aka THE SPAWN OF CTHULU. Blasting only temporarily dismembers them, as in seconds their body parts grow back! Using the proton beam to boil the sewer water, the guys are able to get away from them long enough to escape above ground, but not before one of them wraps its tentacle around Peter’s foot, who looks understandably horrified. Barely escaping (although Peter’s shoe doesn’t make it), the guys reconvene back at HQ. Maybe it’s PTSD, but Peter seems remarkably cool with everything, wondering if all of this is even worth getting into a rush over. Of course, it very much is worth rushing about, especially since the Spawn were most likely brought about by an existing cult, who are certain to attempt to awaken Cthulu itself, especially that it can only be done once every sixty years, when the stars are aligned in a particular way. As Peter wearily, but all too accurately figures, that alignment just happens to be tonight.


No time to lose! Given that the plot of this episode takes place over a mere 24 hours, we still have time for Egon and Peter to take a flight to Arkham, Massachusetts and back to call on the help of Alice Derleth, a Cthulu expert whom Peter, rather appallingly assumes will be ugly because she’s er…intelligent. Turns out she’s a beauty (well, in animated, Real Ghostbusters-terms) and, in probably THE worst opening line to a conversation EVER, Peter openly admits ‘boy, you sure don’t look smart’ – it’s a testament to Lorenzo Music’s delivery that this line is a lot funnier than it really should have been. The understandably appalled Derleth begs Peter’s pardon. Honestly, I’m surprised she didn’t sock him on the jaw. Peter weakly retorts with ‘can we talk?’, which was comedian Joan Rivers’ regular catchphrase. She even said it when she played the robot in Spaceballs.


Derleth, once briefed on the situation, insists they get back to New York straight away. Now this is something that might have been settled over a phone call, and could have saved an extra journey on Egon and Peter’s part, but whatever, I like the fast-paced craziness of this episode. Back in the Big Apple, the guys and Derleth arrive at the suspected base of the Cthulu cult. There’s a terrific shot of Egon approaching a crystal ball, with his warped reflection staring back at us. In the basement, the Cthulu cult, who are sizeable in number, are worshipping the stolen Necronomicon, so our heroes do the stealthy thing and barge in on the ceremony. This bold approach severely backfires however, when the cult leader summons a Spawn of Cthulu, and a big, terrifyingly fanged one at that, to smash through the brick wall, trap the guys and Derleth in its tentacle and move in for the kill. Fade to black. Wait, we’re only at the halfway point? So much has already happened!


Luckily, act two sees this substantial threat swiftly dealt with, as Derleth turns the Spawn into crumbling stone with a spell. The cult meanwhile do a runner, so Ray suggests going to his pulp fiction book store to check out an old issue of Weird Tales to maybe find out a way to defeat Cthulu, as they were written by authors like Lovecraft who had in-depth knowledge of this sort of thing. Honestly, this episode’s moving at a rocket’s pace. The store is owned by a hilariously oddball man named Mr, Howard with a creepy voice – the kind that says ‘yeesssss?’ when he opens the door, and then says, no less eerily, ‘bring your frehends….’ when welcoming Ray.


The rest of the day is spent perusing the books, much to Winston’s chagrin, who thinks they should just blast their enemy, despite events earlier in the sewer confirming that this will not work. Derleth finds the story Ray’s after – The Horror from the Depth – and so we’re off to Coney Island, the most likely worshipping spot for the cult to bring about Cthulu. Unfortunately Ecto-1 gives in so it’s time to get on the train, where they encounter a jackass with a ghetto blaster, who Winston acts very aggressively towards. I don’t think I’ve seen Winston more annoyed than in this episode.


Coney Island indeed turns out to be the right spot, as the cult are already chanting by the stormy sea, with the leader using the Necronomicon to raise the absolute BEHEMOTH that is Cthulu from the waves. He turns out to be a total monster, probably the biggest monster the guys have ever faced, and in true ‘I don’t care about my minions’ cruelty, it crushes the pier where his disciples were standing. Talk about ungrateful. Derleth tries to destroy Cthulu with a spell, but it’s not enough. The proton beams barely make a scratch either, so it’s time to run, run, run. Egon admits defeat, and all seems lost.


Luckily, they suddenly remember about the book they just went out of their way to get. That’s some serious collective memory loss on their behalf. Ray even had the book wedged in his belt – he must have been feeling that thing all the time. The way to kill Cthulu, according to the book, was to fry him with a massive electrical charge. Unfortunately, the last page has been (in)conveniently ripped out, so the hows and whys of electrocuting Cthulu are a mystery. Egon thinks that if they can electrify the metal track of the nearby rollercoaster and attract Cthulu to it, then they might be able to wipe him out if they can time its contact with a lightning bolt. In an incredibly ballsy move, Peter gets on the ride (without being secured in – don’t try this at theme parks, kids) and blasts the enemy, annoying him enough so that he gets near enough the ride to be in contact with it. Then the others blast the ride, lightning strikes, and Cthulu spectacularly melts and is then vaporised. Sorted! Okay, so in the end Cthulu wasn’t quite a be-all/end-all nemesis on the level of say, What/Watt or the Toy Ghost, but he put up a good fight, and besides, it’s not over yet, as there’s still the cult to deal with, and they don’t look happy.


However, the police show up immediately (er, who rang them?) and in true Scooby-Doo fashion, the mask of the cult leader is removed to reveal….Clark Ashton!!! Who’da thunk it? Hilariously, after dispensing major threats and the promising the imminent return of Cthulu, Peter dismisses him with a ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ and the sap and his cronies are escorted away. Besides, Cthulu can’t return for another 60 years, so let’s relax for a while. Actually, Peter’s got something else on his mind. Love. He manages to get Derleth to delay her return home and spend the day with him, but she takes charge and insists they go to a museum, followed by a lecture. The perfect revenge for his earlier comments.


Whoosh. That was a fun 22 minutes. Next up, it’s time for a holiday.


The Real Ghostbusters Episode 40: The Man Who Never Reached Home


Somewhat appropriately, given that this is an episode all about a man who is locked in an eternal journey, doomed to never reach home, this piece closes the longest gap between episode reviews of my very, very drawn-out retrospective. I started this whole thing in 2013! I hope this look at Episode 40 was worth the wait.


After an heartbreaking tale where the Ghostbusters were uncharacteristically, quite obnoxious (poor, poor Drool), all the twattishness in this story gets more comfortably, reassuringly transposed to the one-off dickhead that is Mr. Simon Quegg, who back in 1887, on a stormy night, left an inn in a fury, the staff baffled as to how they offended him, but all Quegg does is promise that the hotel will be shut down, most likely ruining the staff in the process. Even promises of free lodgings won’t assuage him. What happened – why ? It might have been the food, given he refers at one point to ‘slop’, but all this obnoxiousness, plus the fact that he shoves some poor bloke on his way to his horse and carriage, makes me think he’s a bit of a prat, the kind who thinks he’s above customer service workers. Git.


Swearing that he’ll reach home in Providence in Rhode Island before dawn (the Devil himself couldn’t stop him, apparently), despite the tempestuous weather, Fate (or the Devil, or whoever) obviously overhears this and, liking a challenge, appears in the form of a mysterious horse rider, who proceeds to follow Quegg into the night. You’ve heard of that ‘dark night of the soul’ thing? Well, how about if that night lasted a century?


Cut to 100 years later – 1987 – which is now thirty three years ago. Ah, remember when 1987 was the new thing? When new episodes of The Real Ghostbusters were screened every week? Good times. It’s another stormy night, and the guys are in Ecto-1, hungry as hell. They stop off at a diner to feed themselves and Slimer (two dozen hamburgers for him – greedy git). Note that Peter doesn’t hold the door open for Ray, who’s lagging behind. In fact, it looks an awful lot like Peter deliberately closes the door on him.


Afterwards, when Ray goes outside to feed Slimer, a panicked Quegg and his mysteriously red-eyed horse, neither of whom hasn’t aged a day, arrives, still in his horse and carriage, and stops to ask Ray how many miles left to Providence – aghast that it’s still eighty miles left, and lamenting that he’s been ‘travelling all night’, he rushes off so that he’s not caught by his mystery pursuer, who Ray and Slimer both see.


While the diner owner frantically tries to kill Slimer with a saucepan, Ray tells the guys what he’d just seen – Egon confirms that something spectral is in the air, and the owner reveals that Quegg’s become quite the local legend and loads of people around have seen him over the years (only on stormy nights though) – however, not many people have actually seen the mystery rider, so when the diner owner realises that Ray is one of the few people to have done so (and disaster apparently follows this rare occurence), he shoos everyone out for fear that he will succumb to some kind of curse. He even closes the shop.


Ray wants to help Quegg (he might have thought twice had he got to know the sourpuss a bit more), and Egon’s curious about the whole thing, so they decide to find him. When they do catch up on a bridge, he’s coming towards them, in the opposite direction he was sent off in, which suggests he’s been going around in circles forever. Quegg’s annoyed that Ray gave him false directions and is desperate to keep moving, but it turns out that since he and the horse are separate spectral entities, it might be possible to trap the horse and release Quegg from the carriage, from which he seems physically unable to do. Ray attempts to blast the horse, but Egon realises just a little bit too late that this is A VERY BAD IDEA.


Indeed, blasting it only serves to switch Quegg and Ray’s places, so that’s Ray who’strapped in the carriage, which then hurtles off, the rider in hot pursuit. I think more could have been done with this predicament – Ray is potentially locked in an eternal ride, a terrifying concept – but the episode doesn’t seem interested in instilling any kind of tension. It’s more of an inconvenience really, and one that’s swiftly resolved, but not before Quegg, still being a textbook prat, refuses to help the guys to save Ray. To be fair, it seems like every re-appearance has fogged Quegg’s memory (he doesn’t immediately recognise the Ghostbusters despite having met them already) so his attitude is partly down to discombobulation. He insists he has to focus on returning home, but given he doesn’t know how to get there, he’s pretty much coerced into helping out. They drive him back to HQ to try and get some info out of him, but he’s obnoxiously useless, spending most of his time freaking out over Slimer. You’d think Peter and Quegg would strike up a friendship over their mutual hatred of the green spud, but this isn’t developed. Incidentally, this episode’s missing the one person who would have put Quegg in his place – Janine. Imagine how flustered the old grump would have been when he first saw sight of her amazing hairdo? And imagine how she would have taken none of his shit?


There’s no guarantee of bad weather the next night, but Egon has miraculously created a fancy weather manipulator (filled with silver iodine, which when sprinkled on clouds, can make it rain) – these things had the potential to become all the rage in the mid-eighties, as fans of Kate Bush’s marvellous ‘Cloudbusting’ video will attest, but they never caught on. Bizarrely, Egon relies on the notoriously clumsy and danger-prone Slimer to assist in Ecto-2 with the spraying of the iodine, and to be fair, he does get the job done, but only after killing almost everybody in a farcical set-piece. Blimey, all he had to do was push a button, but as Peter wisely points out, that’s also what it takes to start World War III.


The rain arrives on cue and so does Ray  –  he tries to get out of the carriage but he literally can’t. it’s like an invisible wall is stopping him from doing so. Egon thinks that if three proton beams are levelled at the carriage, it might remove Ray from the carriage without switching him with the others. Unfortunately, a bolt of lightning overloads the proton packs and renders them useless. So I guess it’s time for Quegg to face the rider, a rider he’s absolutely terrified of, even if he doesn’t know why he’s following him. Plucking up the courage to confront him, Quegg gets in the carriage with Ray and when they approach the rider, it turns out that he’s an exact copy of Quegg – Quegg’s been running away from himself this whole time! You know, literally and metaphorically! It’s a good twist, to be honest, and this guy needs to learn a lesson. Interestingly, Quegg is able to kick Ray out of the carriage before this confrontation, which suggests that maybe anyone can get in, and then you’re able to kick people out (but not yourself) – I don’t know the specifics. It’s not important, I suppose.


Obnoxious Quegg and Evil Quegg then storm towards each other, only for them to both disappear in spectacular fashion. It’s alright though, as Quegg has now reappeared, with no rider in sight, to thank Ray for helping him what a complete tool he’s been all this time, before heading off, jubilant at his imminent return home. What’s weird is that, yes, Quegg can now go home, but what is home now? His family, if he had any, will have died, and other people will have moved in, and I’m almost 100% certain he won’t get on with them. It’s the kind of happy ending that really isn’t that happy at all when you think about it. I’d have loved there to be a post-credits scene where Quegg shows up at his estate and it’s now a McDonald’s drive-thru. He would definitely refer to a McChicken Sandwich as slop, no doubt. Anyway, this isn’t a favourite episode of mine – it’s alright I suppose, and the first half is pretty intriguing, but Quegg’s not really an interesting personality, the stakes (weird given we’re talking a tale that spans a century) end up feeling oddly low and nothing really outstanding of note occurs. Oh, well. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it took me so long to write about it. The next episode however, sees The Real Ghostbusters back with an absolute vengeance, in one of the best adventures of the series.


Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen

Happy birthday to a beautiful thing indeed…

prefab sprout steve mcqueen

One of the best albums about love – Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout – turns 35 today. It’s been in my life for almost twenty years – I bought it from the HMV in London’s Oxford Street on a late autumn Sunday afternoon, where the nights were drawing in and the chill in the air meant I was looking for something warm to keep me feeling less alone in this world. Knowing the Sprout only from their bigger hits from a few years later, I was aware that their second album was meant to be the one that hit the heart the deepest. One of those perfect albums, that sort of thing. Around this time, I was really starting to delve into the music of that special decade that I had grown up in but was too young to actually buy the music of – the 1980s. Recently, I had bought another classic album that had also just recently celebrated its 35th birthday – Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche 85, and I was finding so much pleasure in songs that I hadn’t heard before yet were also comfortingly rooted in a past that I had only dreamlike memories of. Steve McQueen would turn out to be one of the most cherished examples of this half-nostalgic/half-adventurous expedition.

Prefab Sprout’s songwriter, lead singer and guitarist Paddy McAloon, is one of the 20th century’s most remarkable melodicists and lyricists – his songs are the kind that reduce fans to wrecks with their sheer loveliness and piercing heartbreak. The Sprout of course were a band too – a fucking great one – with the classic line-up of Paddy’s brother Martin on bass, Neil Conti on drums and Wendy Smith on inimitable backing vocals (and keyboards) a thing of perfection combined. When these four were together, wonderful, wonderful things happened. And then when a fifth presence was involved, they were even better, but more about Thomas Dolby in a sec.

Steve McQueen, retitled Two Wheels Good in the US to avoid being sued by the actor’s estate, was the Sprout’s second album. Their debut from the year before, Swoon, was a brilliant thing indeed – stuffed to the gills with superb wordplay and wildly impressive melodic shifts and key changes, it barely stood still for a second. It still sounds full of life, energy and nervous wit. Yet if Swoon was the hunk of jagged marble; a bit messy, a bit unformed, but full of potential, then Steve McQueen is the perfect statue that emerges from its centre. It saw the Sprout reach an early peak. Some fans might have missed the itchier, edgier, more ‘live’ likes of  the superb ‘Don’t Sing’, ‘Cue Fanfare’ or ‘I Never Play Basketball Now’, especially as album #2 essentially heralded the trajectory where the Sprout only got more and more polished, would give us the ‘jumping frog’ song (which I love, by the way) and grew even more ornate onwards – I think though that Steve McQueen is the Prefab Sprout album that we all can agree on, that third bowl of porridge (although it was the second album) that was just right, an album of remarkable dexterity, tenderness, allusion (‘Georgie’ Gershwin and Faron Young’s ‘Four in the Morning’ get name-checked) and maturity. That last factor is a big deal, because the Sprout were occasionally been dismissed as sentimentalists or a bit too sugary, but that prettiness often goes hand-in-hand with some pretty gut-wrenching truths about love.

Steve McQueen‘s production, its sound, its feel, has rarely been equalled in music. The warmth that comes from this record. It was produced by Thomas Dolby, he of ‘Hyperactive!’ and ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ fame. Dolby and Sprout would end up being a dream partnership. This music truly glimmers and glitters, like a firework display on a cold November night, or the northern lights. The first five songs are a crescendo of magnificence. The rest of the album is very special, particularly in one case, but the that first half…oh my GOD. The stuff of magic. Some of the most beautiful, catchy, immediately brilliant songs you’ll ever hear.

The rockabilly-infused ‘Faron Young’ kicks things off with a dreamy, airy sound that’s instantly addictive – it’s as though the complexities of Swoon‘s song structures have been given a glistening sheen. It’s just as complex a sound, but this time the music truly breathes – Dolby’s production is like a wreath of perfume, a waltz of iridescence, as gleaming as the pink chrome on the motorcycle Paddy perches on on the utterly, utterly wonderful album cover. The song itself is a masterpiece of lyrical asides to being let down by something undisclosed that ‘offers infrared instead of sun’, that’s as ‘obsolete as warships in the Baltic’. The production offers ricocheting bullets, country banjo and shuffling, train-like rhythms – it’s like being in a Western! It’s a wonderful opener.

‘Bonny’ however, is when Steve McQueen elevates itself from a great album into a remarkable one. McAloon had given us ballads before, but nothing like this – the desolate opening, the subtle wind effects, the piercing acoustic shimmy, the totally devastating lyrics, and the melodies. Oh, the melodies! And it has a middle-eight of such exquisite tenderness, backed by the soft but strident beat of the rhythm section. Where before the band had seemed content to hide itself in a lyrical and musical maze of complexities and wordplay, ‘Bonny’ is a weapons-grade heartbreaker, with the words in the chorus as succinct a portrayal of regret over past behaviour as one can bear in a love song:

I count the hours since you slipped away
I count the hours that I lie awake
I count the minutes and the seconds too
All I stole and I took from you

Unlike the narrator, you will give this song more than mere minutes or moments once it burrows under your skin. Not once is it ostentatious or overwrought, just laser-sharp brilliance. And then it gets even better. ‘Appetite’ is one of the greatest singles of the 80s, and certainly one of the most underrated. It’s the sort of thing that made you wish all pop of this kind could be this fucking good. McAloon sings of the cruel machinations of the heart and the whiplash nature of desire with such elegance. The way it falls like petals and snow by the time we get to the chorus – well, these are the kind of magic moments in music where nothing about it could be bettered, a perfect performance, a transcendent one. It sparkles. It delights. It’s like being twirled round and round in a dance.

And then it gets EVEN BETTER. ‘When Love Breaks Down’ is one for the ages. I mean, just a perfect song. It was released as a single not once, not twice, but thrice, and even then it only reached as high as #25. You can’t blame them for trying again and again. When you write something this fucking good, it must absolutely kill for it not to be a smash. And this should have been the biggest hit of 1985, alongside, say, Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ – of course, the subject matter is bleak, but heartbreak never stopped a song from selling millions, and when that chorus comes in, there’s no doubt about it: McAloon is a genius. So is Thomas Dolby. Like sparkling snow on the trees, like the bracing, but slightly bitter winter wind, it makes you stop and take notice. This song is absolutely devastating. And has there been a line more gut-punching as  ‘when love breaks down, you join the wrecks, who leave their hearts for easy sex’ in the top 40?

And then it gets EVEN BETT- no wait, maybe not better, but just as great. ‘Goodbye Lucille #1’ is the stuff dreams are made of, from that so-pretty-it-kills-me opening guitar flutter, to the quiet crescendo that leads us all the way, through shimmering, shivering but gentle peaks, to an extraordinary finale that could reduce you to tears. The sheer loveliness of it all. It’s like a kiss. The perfect kiss, to quote the title of another classic 1985 single. Why can’t all music be this beautiful? And like another 1985 corker of a single, Scritti Politti’s ‘The Word “Girl”‘, it refuses to objectify the woman in question by insisting that ‘she is a person too…she has her own will’, while consoling an unlucky-in-love dumpee.

After a run of songs that magnificent, it would probably be too much to ask for that kind of momentum to continue. And to be fair, after this, Steve McQueen does settle, for a while, into merely ‘very, very good’ – I mean, the bitter, yet sparkling, ‘Hallelujah’ is just brilliant! ‘Moving the River’ absolutely delightful, the work of a ‘truly gifted kid’. The bossa nova-inflected ‘Horsin’ Around’ is a doleful, melancholic thing, told from the POV of someone who admits that ‘I was the fool who always presumed that I’d wear the shoes and you’d be the doormat’. Such regret, here delivered with a cheeky, if sad wink, is not adequate build-up for the emotional depths of the next song.

‘Desire As’ is up there with Steve McQueen‘s first side. It’s the most forlorn, dejected thing they’ve ever created. ‘I’ve got six things on my mind…you’re no longer one of them’ is the kind of protest-too-much lyric in the vein of ‘I’m Not in Love’ that suggests there really is a seventh thing on Paddy’s mind. A song of self-destructive behaviour, infidelity, and of throwing away happiness (‘it’s perfect as it stands/so why then crush it in your perfect hands’ – brilliant), it’s backed by a score that is at once dreamily tender yet utterly, utterly full of despair. The moment when the song opens up like a flower at the start of the second verse is like the cue card for the saddest dance that was ever danced. It’s at once heartbreaking, and yet, thanks to the sheer gracefulness of the music, it’s as addictive as a drink at the bar.

A testament to Steve McQueen‘s sequencing comes in the form of the brief but beautiful ‘Blueberry Pies’, a perfect respite to what’s come before, even if it is a swaying, seasick tale of heartbreak where the narrator likens himself to ‘an air raid, leaving both us orphans’ – what lyrics! Amazingly, for an album made slap bang in the middle of the 80s, the only song that really sounds of its time, and only for portions, is the closing tune, ‘When the Angels’. Actually, it sounds like the early 90s, given that those synth stabs during the verses, really, really remind me of the soundtrack to the classic Super Nintendo future-racer F-Zero! Although F-Zero didn’t have obscured vocals saying stuff like ‘hard-faced little bastards’ in the mix. It wraps up an album with enough spirit to leave you going home a bit happier than you would have if you’d lifted the needle up after ‘Desire As’.

After Steve McQueen, the Sprout swiftly recorded an extremely good, Dolby-less follow-up – Protest Songs – which was then shelved by their record company for fear that it would take sales away from Steve McQueen. Yet tunes like lovely ‘The World Awake’, the giddying ‘A Life of Surprises’ and snake-like ‘Wicked Things’ were as good as anything on its predecessor. It would finally get released a year after the Sprout’s official follow-up to Steve McQueen, 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis, which saw McAloon take on America, pumping up the band’s sound to spectacular effect. The Springsteen-baiting ‘Cars and Girls’ was an amazing, powerful comeback single, ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ a pop treasure, and when McAloon decided to go full-pelt with his love of his classic songwriting, with songs sounding like they belonged in Hollywood musicals. A tune like ‘Nightingales’, so sugar-coated in its production it was almost Disney but my god, if you were going to break the blockbuster sound, then do it 100% – it’s one of the most moving songs McAloon has ever written. It’s almost impossibly romantic. Then after that the ambition broke through the roof with the huge, brilliant concept album Jordan: The Comeback, and then after that a period of intermittent releases, best-ofs and unreleased projects, and the sense of a momentum derailed. Oh well, what we did get and we would eventually get is more than most bands could dream of giving us. For those who fall for the Sprout, they fall hard. After all, ‘life’s not complete/til your heart’s missed a beat’.

Colour me smitten, forever.




Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85

The ultimate 80s pop album turns 35 today!


If someone were to ask me what my favourite pop album was, one where every song is just an immediate pleasure-source, where you can put it on and just dance your worries and sorrows away and feel the impact and ecstatic volume of the music, then Scritti Politti’s amazing 1985 classic Cupid and Psyche 85, which is 35 years old today, would be the most likely candidate. It’s an album for dancing, for dreaming, for going all kinds of giddy about. And yet it’s also stupendously clever, a pop album where you can really get lost in the wordplay. The 80s were a prime era for this kind of thing. ABC’s The Lexicon of Love and it’s stupendously great lyrics threw down the gauntlet in this respect; Scritti grabbed the baton. It is the centrepiece of all that is sensationally great about 80’s pop – the production is utterly spectacular, at once feather-light and absolutely slamming. The vocals are insanely, hyper-helium-infused creamy dreaminess.

Scritti Politti are a band with a rotating line-up – the only constant is chief songwriter and singer Green Gartside – whose initial mission of syncing post-modernist, self-aware, deconstructive, philosophically-inspired lyricism with raw, skank-driven, lo-fi DIY post-punk made them one of Rough Trade’s earliest cult successes (check out their great Early compilation), but by the time of the Eighties, Green had decided that the best way to subvert the system was from the inside, not the outside. With the glorious debut 1982 album Songs to Remember, Green and Scritti had become something they hadn’t been before – beautiful. Green’s voice had revealed itself to be one of the cutest and loveliest in all of music. These were absolutely glorious tunes, infused with the romantic reggae sound of lovers’ rock and exuding quietly earth-shattering seductiveness, best showcased on the utterly gorgeous single ‘The “Sweetest Girl”’’. Yet this was also the start of Scritti’s melding of surface beauty with underlying lyrical complexity – yeah, you can slow-dance to this tune, but listen to those lyrics, where typical boy-meets-girl scenarios are turned inside out and end up leaving one off balance and considering just why the title has been given those inverted commas, just like the heroes in Bowie’s “Heroes”. This is a love song, but it’s a little bit more than that too. This was where Green would start to become fascinated with the countless ‘girls’ and ‘sweethearts’ of infinite love songs who would be reduced to these idealised, perfected fantasy objects, with little to no agency of their own. The power of language, linguistics and love songs would become a subject of fascination, and this extended to the packaging of the album’s accompanying singles, which pastiched existing ad campaigns for perfumes and alcoholic spirits, all the better to seduce and entice. The sugared pill, if you will. But you don’t feel cheated – Green wasn’t just cynically using pop music to sneak in his philosophical ideas – his clear adoration of soul and pop is breathtakingly loving and infectious.

After Songs won plaudits but not much commercial success, Green decided to go for broke by making the follow-up album an absolute monster. Nothing less than a blockbuster would do. Leaving Rough Trade (as well as his band members, going on to hook up with keyboardist David Gamson and drummer Fred Maher), signing up with Virgin and Warner Bros, sharing production duties with the legendary Arif Mardin, (who had worked with Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees and Hall & Oates), the resulting Cupid and Psyche 85 would end up making its predecessor sound very, very small indeed. It sounded incredibly sophisticated and futuristic, a state-of-the-art, non-stop rollercoaster of massive pop that picked up where Mardin’s most recent production, Chaka Khan’s incredible #1 single ‘I Feel for You’ left off, and went running with it. The insanely tight sound – a miracle of sequencing, sampling and slamming bass-levels – and rich heritage of hip-hop, soul and mainstream pop culminated in probably the most 1980s record ever recorded, and in the best possible way. Cupid sounds so much like 1984 and 1985 from its first second to its last, but only the good bits. In 2020 it still absolutely slays. Its biggest legacy would be how it would pave the way for Jam and Lewis’ sensational production sound – there are few better double-bills in pop music than this album and Janet Jackson’s Control from 1986.

The first single took no prisoners. ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ was an amazing love song about love songs (the title’s a nod to Franklin’s epochal ‘I Say a Little Prayer’), with Green waxing philosophical and blinding us with lyrical asides (‘there’s nothing I wouldn’t do….including doing nothing’ is one of my all-time fave lines) and a staggeringly honeyed vocal that was, impossibly, even sweeter than anything he’d delivered before. Yet this wasn’t a love song that sounded like ‘The “Sweetest Girl”’ – yeah, you could swoon to this one, but you were just as likely to be pummelled into submission by the immense explosion of those opening drums, which signalled that Green wasn’t playing coy – the bass rumbled, the sparse guitar was funkier and more stripped down than ever, and only the synths and Green’s voice allowed for some lightness. But what lightness. The chorus of ‘Wood Beez’ is one of the earliest instances I can remember of being totally WOWED by a piece of pop. Its middle-eight is beamed in from Heaven itself. I had never heard a vocal like Green’s, not from a man. It made Michael Jackson sound like Barry White. It was thrillingly feminine, romantic and masterfully beguiling.

This was most certainly the first Scritti song I had heard – I can’t remember the specifics, but when in the 90s I saw it broadcast on the VH-1 music network, it brought back memories of being at home on a Saturday night when I was much younger, when the family and I would be getting ready to go out to meet with friends, maybe at some social club or birthday get-together – I have memories of this playing on the radio, maybe? It was a thrillingly exciting sound – this was the sound of dressing-up, the excitement of night-time. At these get-togethers I’d be small enough to remain unnoticed, in awe of the disco lights, the small but busy crowd, the tasty snacks, the fizzy pop, where everything seemed like an explosion of hugeness, colour, volume and the buzz of adult social activity, me just a fly on the wall buzzing at the experience of it all. ‘Wood Beez’ conjures up those memories and feelings, and more. It is one of the greatest pop singles of all time.

‘Absolute’ is pitch-perfect – it was the second single, and remains the apex of Scritti’s sound from around this time. The twinkling intro, that sparkles like stars, which then burst open into a gleefully effervescent WALLOP of punchy, spectacular sounds that are impossibly busy and yet spectacularly ‘vodka clear’ – this is a complicated, layered sound, but it never feels over-compressed or simply too much. It sounds great on the radio, it sounds great on headphones and I imagine it would sound ASTONISHING in a club. Never heard it in one. But I don’t really club, so that one’s on me. It’s at once an immediate, glossy, commercial beast, and yet one where the little intricacies reward infinite listens. Its bridge is one for the ages, where the song, having already got you dancing, now gets you swooning. It’s positioning as the third track is spot-on – this is where the album becomes even bigger and takes absolutely no prisoners.

The 12” version is – typical of its time – a lot of jittery, jumpy vocal samples and whatnot, but it does feature my absolute all-time breakdown in pop music, at around 3:40, where the final, extended bridge is repeated but as an instrumental, and this bit.. this bit represents everything I kinda love about pop music (well, except the singing) – time stands still and everything just erupts in a heavenly wave of glittering synths, pounding drums, low ‘n’ heavy bass and one hell of a melodic shift that would have had me falling to my knees in a club if ever I heard it in one. It’s a brief but utterly glorious moment where nothing else matters, just the absolute sensation of the music. If people were to ask me what it is about pop – and specifically 80s pop – that I love so much, those eighteen or so seconds would be a great pointer. It takes me back to a time when everything seemed possible (to paraphrase Simple Minds, whose New Gold Dream LP is my all-time fave record), and a sound of its time, and yet still looking forward in time. Pop music makes biased, passionate fans out of all us, and it’s difficult to remove oneself from the personal impact it has on us, but I simply don’t think pop has outdone this.

The other major single from the album – at least in the UK – was a different thing indeed. ‘The Word “Girl”’ – was just about the most delicately bouncy and delightful example of reggae-tinged 80s-pop imaginable. Building on from ‘The “Sweetest Girl”’s analysis of the ‘girl’ in pop , it seduces utterly on the surface with a sunny-to-sunset dream of a melody, the kind of tune first kisses and walks on the beach are made of, but subverts it all with talk of ‘the girl was never real….she stands for your ideals’. It kicks off Cupid and Psyche 85 with such loveliness that resistance is useless. It ended up being Scritti’s biggest hit in the UK. In the US, it was the bulldozing, smashing bounce of ‘Perfect Way’ that broke the band. Arguably the most conventional of the five singles from the album – you could almost imagine it being on the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop II a couple of years later – it is just about as sunny and commercial a song from this time as one could think of, but it’s also dazzlingly smart on the lyrical front. It just sounds so fresh and bright and joyous, even today. The other single from the album, in direct contrast to ‘Perfect Way’s streamlined strut, was the album closer ‘Hypnotize’ (note the Americanised spelling, all the better to corner the biggest market), which has barely any structure to it all – it’s all breakdowns, hooks, beats and incredible production.

With over half the album released on 7” and 12”, the likes of ‘Small Talk’, ‘Don’t Work That Hard’ and ‘Lover to Fall’ (which was a single in France only) are lighter affairs, but wow – but what tonics they are. ‘Lover to Fall’ is almost insanely upbeat (although the lyrics are a more sober affair), with verses that just POP with ebullient charm, and with a chorus that takes the breath away by how heartbreakingly gorgeous it is – if you’re looking for a hook that digs deep, then take this bait. It’s so, so good. Plus it contains the words ‘hermeneutic’ and ‘paradigm’, which I don’t think any other song this mainstream has ever done. ‘Small Talk’ is one of those perfect second tracks on an album, where you’re settled in and just before the big guns come out, you can get ready with a tune where everything clicks splendidly – it’s almost like a parody of 80s music if you get what I mean – nothing in it could exist at any other time. It’ll take you back, whether you were there or not. Ditto ‘Don’t Work That Hard’, with its brilliant ‘drowning in my teardrops’ refrains and sweetly sexy bridges. Cupid is a sexy album, it must be said. The kind of sexiness that’s playful, brainy, immaculately coiffed (Green’s hair around this time was fucking incredible), suited, booted, well-read and head over heels in love, and maybe a bit confused about it all too.

The album’s one ballad – the beautiful ‘A Little Knowledge’ – is the only time where the drums take a little break. It would have made for a perfect album closer, but I like where it is anyway, just after ‘Absolute’, where it’s time to lie down, face-to-face with your lover, and share your deepest thoughts and worries. A duet between Green and a mystery female vocalist (is this Green also, his voice manipulated?), it’s one of the most underrated, gorgeous love songs ever. It sounds so romantic, so seductive, so dreamlike. There’s even a really neat bit in the second chorus when, during ‘…and mend a broken heart’, the record is ever-so subtly messed with so that the word ‘broken’ stutters a fraction on the ‘k’ in ‘broken’…just a tiny bit, so as to suggest disharmony. It’s brilliant. I love the image of ‘got a little radio held to my body’ is a perfect encapsulation of how music can mean so much to you.

All great, great songs then, and sequenced in a way that it flies by in a rush of good times. The album won rave reviews and it was indeed a smash hit, although there were some who thought the lyrical subversion was ultimately lost in the blockbuster sound. Green would spend the next few years struggling to follow it up, eventually releasing Provision, a delightful album with a lighter, even crisper sound (and boasting some superb singles too) that is often seen as Cupid’s lesser twin, but which reaps gorgeous rewards for those who want in. Definitely check it out. But for me, Cupid is the one, because it’s not just a great album, but a great experience, an encapsulation of a specific time, an album overloaded with excitement, enthusiasm, smarts and seduction. It’s one of the best times going, and 35 years on, it hasn’t lost its edge.